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Aztec Day: A Victory, A Defeat

Jim Brandenburg did not know whether to giggle or gag. Thursday was that kind of day for him.

Forget that it was dreary and drizzly. This wasn’t a weather kind of thing. A picnic was not what he had in mind, anyway.

The San Diego State basketball coach’s appointment calendar for Thursday, Jan. 3, 1991, listed two significant items. It was either a little too late for Christmas or much too early for Christmas, but this calendar represented a wish list as well.

One of these items presented an opportunity for taking a giant step forward in the 1990-91 season and the other an opportunity for a giant step forward for the future of the program. One was easily more consequential, but this was not a time when Brandenburg was inclined to make any such concession.

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The long-standing appointment was at 9:05 p.m. It was a basketball game with Brigham Young University, the ridiculously late hour dictated by the fact that ESPN needed fodder for insomniacs in Bangor, Baltimore, Barnesboro and other burgs back east.

The other, much earlier, would be a telephone call from Mr. Tony Clark, who would advise Mr. Brandenburg whether his date book for 1991 included classes (and eventually basketball) at SDSU.

As the clock crawled past 11 p.m. at the Sports Arena on this fateful day, Brandenburg slumped forward in a folding chair with his attention riveted to a sheet of statistics in his hands.

"%*&!” he said.

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He looked up, startled, as though he had forgotten he was not alone.

“You can’t print that, can you?” he said.

No. Never fear.

Unfortunately, the statistical sheet reflected what Brandenburg, ESPN’s audience and a gathering of 3,696 had watched on the basketball court moments earlier. The Aztecs had blown an eight-point lead in the second half and lost, 73-61.

%*&!

You could say that again, if you were Jim Brandenburg.

Losing wasn’t everything, of course, but losing to BYU was. You ask an SDSU coach if he would trade his wife for a victory over BYU . . . and he would have to think about it for a second before saying he probably wouldn’t. Players, students and fans feel the same way.

Brandenburg’s personal rivalry with the Cougars dates back to his years coaching first at Montana and later at Wyoming. He won’t admit it would be any more special to beat BYU, but you could get a little feeling from the look on his face in defeat.

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What hurt was that this year’s Cougars should have been infinitely beatable, in that they are not particularly fast, do not handle the ball particularly well and do not shoot particularly well.

When you sit down and assess the schedule in October, you mark “W” next to that Jan. 3 appointment with BYU.

That it didn’t happen was mainly because of the presence of one Shawn Bradley in the BYU lineup. He is a freshman who stands 7-foot-6 and weighs about as much as a pencil. You could drop him through the hoop. But he also does a surprisingly graceful job of dropping the ball through the hoop. He scored 24 points, 17 of them when BYU was rallying to win in the second half.

“Geez,” Brandenburg said, “the guy is like a praying mantis.”

Excellent description. And the Aztecs were dinner.

This was enough to foul what was left of the day. Losing to a beatable team with a kid center at the Sports Arena does not speak well of the Aztecs’ chances against the elite from the Western Athletic Conference, and the conference seems to be overpopulated with elite teams.

For example, Utah, tonight’s visitor, is 12-1. Down the road are New Mexico (11-2), Wyoming (9-2), UTEP (9-2), Hawaii (8-4) and Colorado State (7-4). All have legitimate shots at NCAA tournament bids based on what they have done so far.

“We go seven or eight deep with pretty good basketball teams,” Brandenburg said. “We go as deep as any conference in the country.”

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For parts of Thursday’s game, the Aztecs weren’t that bad . . . but maybe not “pretty good” either. Indeed, in the end, they were not good enough on this night against that team.

But what about that other appointment Thursday?

Tony Clark, San Diego’s all-time record holder for career, season and game scoring, would, in fact, be enrolling at SDSU and would become eligible in December. Frustrated by limited playing time at the University of Arizona, he was coming home.

It has become commonplace for the hottest of San Diego’s high school hot shots to go out of state, where they discover 15 other hot shots as hot as they are . . . or hotter.

No dummy, Tony Clark quickly concluded he can be a cornerstone at SDSU . . . rather than just another brick in the wall.

This thought brightened Jim Brandenburg.

“I am pleased with the general direction of the program,” he said. “But . . . I’m not pleased with this game.”


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