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Aztecs Take On Utah as Seniors See Time Running Out on Them

Times Staff Writer

On most basketball teams, seniors are a special group. They are the players who have been born, grown and matured together in a program.

They have spent four years as one, only to reach that day when they must part as teammates for good. Their final game can be a time of deep emotions.

Tonight could the final game for the three remaining seniors on the San Diego State basketball team, but their Western Athletic Conference preliminary-round game against Utah at the Huntsman Center (6:05 PST) will lack some of that sense of parting. Not because the three seniors--Shawn Bell, Sam Johnson and Mitch McMullen--are any less emotional, devoted or caring than players elsewhere; it is just that they find themselves leaving before they got to know each other.

That is what happens when players transfer into a program as upperclassmen. Time was not on their side.

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“It was like I came, it happened and I’m gone,” Bell said. “I didn’t get a chance to get into the environment. I never got a chance to know the guys as individuals.”

The lament is shared.

“It was hard for all of us to have the same vision of what it takes to be a winner,” McMullen said. “Maybe if we had been together for four years, we would have had that feeling. This year we didn’t have that, and it led to a lot of uncertainty.”

That might be as good a reason as any to help explain what went wrong with the Aztecs. They started 8-4 but lost 12 of their final 16 regular-season games to finish 12-16, the same record as last season.

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The season was a series of on-the-court and off-the-court setbacks, the most recent the loss of guards Bryan Williams (disciplinary) and Michael Best (medical) for the remainder of the season. Best, a junior, could be back next season, but Williams, who transferred last season after playing one season each at UC Irvine and Cerritos College, has used up his eligibility. By most measures, the three remaining seniors are an unusual mix. All transfers, they spent a total of five seasons in an Aztec uniform. Together, they represent the entire starting front line and account for 48.5% of the team’s scoring and 56.6% of its rebounding. They hail from as far away as Detroit (Johnson), and as close as Morse High School (Bell), but all took a winding road to reach this far.

McMullen, a 6-10 center, signed out of Hart High School in Newhall to attend Brigham Young. He never enrolled, choosing Point Loma Nazarene instead. He left there after his freshman season for College of the Canyons in Valencia, spent one season there before joining Coach Jim Brandenburg last season for his first season at SDSU.

Johnson, a 6-7 power forward, came to SDSU from Detroit but not before a two-season stop at Eastern Michigan, where he saw limited playing time. He has had three operations on his knees since arriving at SDSU but has been able to overcome them to become a two-year starter and the team’s second-leading rebounder (6.7 per game).

Bell, a 6-6 small forward, is the only hometowner in the group. But like the others, his route was not so direct. He spent his first three seasons at Chicago State before transferring to SDSU.

This season was to be Bell’s only chance to play for a winner while showing off his skills before family and friends. He failed at what he wanted most.

“At the begining of the year, I had high expectations for this team,” Bell said. “But somehow we had problems putting the chemistry together. We never learned to play together.

“In a lot of ways, we’re still learning about each other. You can’t know a person on a friendly basis or a team basis after just a year. This whole team basically has just kind of been thrown together.”

The Aztecs opened the season with five transfers in the starting lineup, only three of whom had played as much as a season together.

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“If we had played three or even two years together, we would have had a lot better team chemistry,” Bell said. “It’s just knowing each other’s individual moves or a person’s thinking. If you have played with a person for a while, you know instinctively what he is going to do. That really would have helped.”

The Aztecs still could salvage something with a strong performance in the WAC tournament. A victory against Utah (15-16) would send them into the quarterfinals Thursday night against regular-season champion Colorado State. The Aztecs defeated the Rams, 62-57, at home early in the season and lost to them, 67-47, on the road. But that was before the loss of Williams and Best.

“We have gone through some difficult heartaches, especially the last two months,” Bell said. “We never have had a chance to put things in perspective. One thing would happen--like an injury or someone would be suspended from the team--and we would get that part of our team together again and something else would come up. We were going in circles with all the problems.”

During these difficult times is when the seniors said their lack of familiarity with each other and with the younger players hurt unity and kept the team from rebounding from its adversities.

“We were in a situation where we didn’t know each other that well,” McMullen said. “We didn’t know how to react. Someone might say the wrong thing. If you are together with someone for four years, you know their weaknesses, you know their strengths, you know how to do things with them. It is just going to take time for that to happen here. That is what happens in a rebuilding program.”

The experience of this season’s seniors is not unique. Not since guard Anthony Watson in 1986 have the the Aztecs had a player who was recruited into the program as a freshman complete his career having played four seasons at the school. The next player with that chance is junior guard Tony Ross, the only remaining member of former coach Smokey Gaines’ last recruiting class.

This season’s seniors can only hope next year’s team has a better ride.

“This season easily could destroy a person’s self-esteem, his self-confidence and everything else,” McMullen said. “But out of all of this at least I can say we almost beat Tennessee; we gave North Carolina a tough game; and we beat Colorado State, which won the WAC.

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“The season wasn’t a roller coaster; it was all up, then all down. But at least we had some of those highs. Some teams don’t even have that.”

For this diverse group of seniors, that is their consolation.

Aztec Notes

Senior forward Sam Johnson missed the team’s 7:20 a.m. flight from San Diego because he overslept, Coach Jim Brandenburg said. Johnson took a later flight and arrived in time for an afternoon practice. No disciplinary action is planned against Johnson, Brandenburg said. . . . The Aztecs have won only once in 12 games against Utah in Huntsman Center. They have lost six in a row since their only victory--74-72 in 1982. The Aztecs lost both their games to the Utes this season--80-61 in Utah and 80-77 in San Diego. . . . The only other time the Aztecs played in the preliminary game of the WAC tournament was in 1987, when they defeated Hawaii, 93-90, in San Diego.


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