The record will say the season ended for the San Diego State basketball team Wednesday night with a loss to Utah in the preliminary game of the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
But the beginning of the end came two months earlier and 45 miles to the south, when SDSU blew a 15-point, second-half lead at Brigham Young and lost, 85-81. The defeat knocked the Aztecs out of a first-place tie in the WAC and started a downward trend they would never reverse.
Soon after the game, the internal bickering that would contribute to the Aztecs’ downfall spilled into the open. The next two months were a time of turmoil, suspensions and injuries that carried to the final minutes of the final game.
“We didn’t play particularly well at BYU, but even at that we were up by 15,” SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg said. “Then, through one reason or another, we ended up losing that basketball game. That was a major disappointment. That’s when the finger-pointing began that set the stage for the rest of the season.”
The Aztecs went on two nights later to lose at Utah, 80-61. Senior guard Bryan Williams peppered his post-game comments with criticism of senior center Mitch McMullen, who scored a career-low two points. It was a rare public uttering of the conflict within, but the damage was done.
“If I took a realistic approach, I could see we had the potential to become a fragmented team,” Brandenburg said. “I could see some real strong signals early when we didn’t react well at Texas Tech (a 58-43 loss Dec. 5). We didn’t handle adversity well, and that bothered me.
“Usually I can see some of those little signals and start doing some talking to work those things out. But I didn’t see it coming like it did. Once it happened, I started doing the talking, but it was so sudden, so quick and so devastating.
“The slippage that took place after the first road trip was a landslide slippage that I still am amazed at. I have tried to get a finger on it, but the gravity and the extent of it almost baffles me.”
The loss at BYU began a slide in which the Aztecs lost 13 of their last 17 games, including 13 of their final 15 against conference teams. Their 12-17 record was the same as last season, Brandenburg’s first at SDSU, but their 4-10 conference mark was a one-game drop.
Brandenburg said his preseason expectations were for the team to finish around .500. And after an 8-4, 2-0 start, he said he began to think his projections might be too low. That never seemed truer than when the Aztecs opened their WAC season at home by beating eventual champion Colorado State, 62-57.
“That was the best game we put together in the two years I’ve been here,” Brandenburg said. “It wasn’t even close. We outfought and outscrapped Colorado State and beat them into submission.
“I was at an all-time high after that game. I was thinking we had really made some progress.”
But it began to unravel the next week on the trip to BYU and Utah. The injuries and illnesses that were to haunt the Aztecs over the next several weeks began to have an effect.
Senior forward Sam Johnson missed the BYU game with a sprained ankle, and it would be several weeks before he was at full strength. Williams, slowed by the flu, played one of his worst games at BYU. And junior reserve guard Rodney Jones sprained his ankle at Utah.
The difficulties continued at home when McMullen developed a sore Achilles tendon. McMullen, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, would not be the same for three weeks.
All of this helped contribute to a five-game losing streak, the longest in Brandenburg’s 13 seasons as a college coach.
The Aztecs had begun to regain their health and confidence with an 89-74 home victory over BYU Feb. 9 when the worst crisis of the season struck. Bryan Williams was suspended for the season after his arrest for petty theft. Williams had earlier served a one-game suspension for missing curfew after a game at Colorado State.
Three weeks later, as the team prepared for its final regular-season games at New Mexico and Texas El Paso, junior guard Michael Best was suspended for what Brandenburg said were “medical reasons.” School policy, he said, prevented him from commenting further.
The loss of Williams and Best left the Aztecs with only two scholarship guards--Tony Ross and Jones--neither of whom were experienced at running the offense. They went on to lose the two road games by a combined 54 points.
“After we lost those two guards, the players made some valiant efforts,” Brandenburg said, “but realistically, we were just playing out the season.”
It was during that last week that the splits within the team became more noticeable--especially the tension between Brandenburg and Ross.
That conflict reached its peak Wednesday against Utah when Ross, the team’s best outside shooter, spent the last 4 minutes of the 70-57 loss on the bench after an argument with assistant coach Kevin McLeod.
The dispute was the culmination of a season-long test of nerves between Brandenburg and Ross, the team’s leading scorer in each of his first two seasons. Brandenburg had suspended Ross from a preseason game for disciplinary reasons, and the tension between the two could be seen that night in Provo when, after the loss to BYU, a disturbed Ross declined to comment about the reasons for the second-half collapse.
“I don’t want to say anything because if I said something, it would be the wrong thing,” Ross said. It was a thought he would repeat throughout the season, the last time after Wednesday’s loss.
The benching of Ross was the last of several measures Brandenburg took in an effort to discipline his team. Six of the 13 players were suspended for a game or more or banned from team activities during the season. Three--freshmen Dana Jackson, Alex Sund and Eeric White--were suspended after a fighting-and-drinking episode in late December. Sund, whose jaw was broken by White, left the team and said he will transfer.
Brandenburg said he is at a loss to explain the rash of disciplinary problems. But he cited several weaknesses in team makeup that contributed to the slide: overconfidence built by early success, a lack of the kind of senior leadership Rodney Hawkins provided last season and frustration caused by losing.
Some of his players agree that as the team slid, unity suffered.
“At first we came out and tried to work with each other,” senior forward Shawn Bell said, “but as we got deeper into the season, things started to wear on us. And without trying to cause problems, some of the players tried to do too much.”
Said McMullen: “We had such high expections for ourselves in early January, and after we lost at Utah, we were just so crushed. We lost sight of how early in the season it was. We just got so down that we were not in first place anymore, and we never really got it together after that.”
With his second losing season ever over, Brandenburg must turn his attention to next season. The Aztecs lose their entire starting front line--Bell, Johnson and McMullen--and the status of their backcourt is in question. Best’s is to be determined, and Brandenburg and Ross face the possibility of a final stormy season.
The Aztecs have signed at least two players for next season who could provide immediate help--forward Courtie Miller of Torrey Pines High School and guard Ray Barefield of Fresno Hoover. But Brandenburg said he likely will have to find two community college players to help fill the gap in the front court.
He realizes he still has some work to do before he can take the Aztecs to the next step in his three-stage rebuilding plan: competitive, contender, serious contender.
“At times, we had the potential of moving from competitive to being a contender,” Brandenburg said. “But after this, I would say we’re still at the competitive stage.”