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SDSU Finds Reasons for Optimism : Aztecs: Despite 13-16 finish, Brandenburg says positives outweigh the negatives.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It started in a shrine-like setting, in the Smith Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina, and it ended in a Western setting, in the Western Athletic Conference tournament at the University of Wyoming.

In the beginning, a 99-63 loss to North Carolina in late November, a San Diego State team sprinkled with nine new faces began wrestling with Division I basketball. A little more than three months later, after a 67-56 loss to No. 8 Utah finished their season, the Aztecs headed out into a cold Laramie night having learned a few things.

They learned that a college season is long, and there are several highs and lows. They learned that they have to stay consistent, learn as they go and keep their concentration. They also learned that sometimes, no matter how well prepared they are, the other team eats their sandwiches.

Late on the night of their final game, after Utah snuffed out the Aztecs’ season, a local sandwich shop accidentally delivered the goods to Utah’s locker room as SDSU was preparing for the drive back to Denver and a return to San Diego. As always, SDSU had ordered some postgame food. This time, the Utes--probably unable to believe their good fortune--quickly devoured the sandwiches.

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It was, basically, a season to whet the appetite. The Aztecs (13-16) didn’t set any records, and they didn’t qualify for postseason play. They finished in a tie for seventh in the WAC, though they could have moved to fifth had they defeated Hawaii in the last game of the regular season.

It was a season that left Coach Jim Brandenburg optimistic about the future.

“I’m in the best frame of mind in my four years here,” Brandenburg said. “I think next year we’ll have more pieces to the puzzle than we’ve ever had. I’m very anxious to get to work this spring.”

Forget spring. Brandenburg and assistant coach Jimmy Williams were scouting high school prospects the day the Aztecs returned from the WAC tournament.

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The Aztecs lose three players from this year’s team--center Marty Dow, guard Arthur Massey and forward Vern Thompson. Dow (17 points, 10 rebounds a game) and Massey (15 points) were the two leading scorers, and they will leave big holes. But several first-year players got enough experience this season that Brandenburg thinks he finally has a solid foundation.

“I think this year had a lot more positives than negatives,” Brandenburg said. “We played some pretty good basketball at times, and we showed some improvement. Some of our younger players developed and, obviously, had we had Keith Balzer healthy for the entire season, we would have made tremendous, tremendous improvement in number of games won.

“I can truly see us in the top four teams in the conference if Balzer had stayed healthy.”

Balzer, a 6-foot-8 junior forward who transferred to SDSU from Imperial Valley Community College before last season, showed early that he could leap and shoot. But he was bothered by chronic tendinitis in his knee and missed 12 games, mostly in the middle of the season.

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Joe McNaull, a 6-10 freshman forward, and Courtie Miller, a 6-7 redshirt freshman forward, also played well at times this year and, if they can benefit from off-season weight work, should help SDSU next year.

The Aztecs finished with their best winning percentage (.448) since the 1984-85 team went 23-8. They finished with their best WAC record (6-10) since 1985-86. They defeated New Mexico and Texas El Paso back-to-back at home for the first time since 1985-86, and they surprised Wyoming twice--at home in double overtime, 87-84; and in Wyoming, 95-83.

“Some of our wins (were) significant,” Brandenburg said. “We should be able to have a major impact in this league in the future.”

Aside from the inconsistency of youth, SDSU’s biggest problem this season was its guard play. Massey, who is expected to be a student-assistant coach next season, slumped toward the end of the year and was awful in the WAC tournament. As for the trio of Ray Barefield, Chris McKinney and James Lewis, none stepped forward to help Massey early and, when Massey slumped, none was able to pick up the team.

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The Aztecs will target a point guard and a center in their recruiting battles this spring. Brandenburg said they will go after the best available players, whether they come from the high school or community college level.

They need a guard who can shoot, as well as run the team. Barefield, Lewis and McKinney shot a combined 38% from the field. Add Massey to the mix, and the guards’ field goal percentage climbed only to 40%.

SDSU is likely to have at least five rookies next season. Brandenburg probably will sign two players in the spring, and they will join the three who signed in November--John Molle, a 6-foot-5 swingman from Irvine High School who is a good shooter; Marcus Banks, a 6-9, 250-pound forward-center from San Antonio’s East Central High who is physical; and Darnell Cherry, a 6-10 forward from Morse High.

Add to this group Tony Clark, a 6-6 transfer from Arizona who will become eligible the day after the fall semester ends, and Neal Pollard, a 7-foot, 260-pound center who redshirted as a freshman two years ago before leaving on a Mormon mission.

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Finally, Brandenburg says, he is assembling a core group he is happy with.

“I’m so elated about some of the younger players we’ve got,” he said.

He can see things working out. Even that night in Laramie, after Utah devoured SDSU’s sandwiches, the restaurant made up for its mistake by delivering more sandwiches just in time for the Aztecs’ bus trip to Denver.

Next year, maybe everything else will begin to come together.

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