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One-two punch keeps San Diego State on the rise in college basketball

San Diego State assistant coach Brian Dutcher gives some direction to his players during a game against Kansas last month.
(Laura Jacobsen / SDSU Athletics)

SAN DIEGO — Another sellout crowd is on its feet at Viejas Arena for the final minute of yet another San Diego State basketball win.

On this night, a well-respected Nevada team that came in with a highly touted defense has been drubbed by 15 points. Xavier Thames, a senior who is San Diego State’s leading scorer, has put himself within two points of reaching 1,000 points in his career as the Aztecs win for the 20th consecutive time, tying a school record.

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Could this team, currently ranked No. 6 with a 22-2 record, be as good as the 2010-11 squad that was 34-3 and made it to the regional rounds of the NCAA tournament?

The Aztecs lost Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, their top two scorers last season, to the NBA and graduation. But instead of rebuilding, San Diego State simply reloaded.

Thames has moved past the 1,000-point threshold and is scoring at a clip of 17.7 points per game, nearly double his average from last season. Center Josh Davis took advantage of an NCAA rule that allows a student who has graduated to transfer without penalty. He came in from Tulane and is averaging 10.9 rebounds.

And, although the feature players have changed, key to San Diego State’s success are the two faces on the bench that have not.

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Coach Steve Fisher and top assistant Brian Dutcher have guided the Aztecs for 15 years.

Together, they have 303 wins at San Diego State, plus 109 before that at Michigan.

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Dutcher, 54, is one of the best college basketball minds never to have held a head coaching position. It doesn’t bother him, though, because he knows one day this program will be his.

He jokes that he has the longest title in college basketball: associate head coach/head coach in waiting.

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Dutcher was officially tapped as Fisher’s replacement in 2011 when the head coach requested as part of his own contract extension that the school identify Dutcher as his successor.

“That was a very significant and meaningful move to me,” says Fisher, 68. “For him, who’d been a longtime loyal colleague, to have this job.”

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Exactly when that change might happen is not known. Fisher’s contract runs until the end of next season, and he has not indicated that he plans to step aside any time soon.

“Coach has earned the right to stay as long as he wants to stay,” Dutcher says. “I never say, ‘Coach, are you done in one, or two, or three years?’ I never ask that. He’ll decide when he thinks he’s had enough and it’s time to hand over the reins.”

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Dutcher already fulfills some of the duties he would assume as a head coach. He runs practice fairly often and regularly contributes to the final game plan.

“People always wonder how you can be an assistant for so long. Steve lets you have responsibility,” Dutcher says. “In certain programs, assistant coaches just stand on the sidelines and head coaches do all the work, but it’s easy to stay when you feel involved with daily decisions.”

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Important game decisions too. With less than a minute to play and the game on the line in a hostile environment at Boise State this season, Fisher walked over to Dutcher and said, “What do you want to run?”

“He knows how much I trust him,” Fisher says. “He’s appreciative of that, I know. He doesn’t have to say it. It’s an unspoken bond between us that has been forged in time.”

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The relationship goes back to 1988, when they were both assistants at Michigan for Bill Frieder. Fisher, 14 years older, took Dutcher under his wing.

Dutcher garnered national attention when two years later he helped land Michigan’s “Fab Five” recruiting class, which is considered by some to be the best single-season haul in college basketball history.

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Three years after that, he brought the nation’s top-rated recruiting class to Michigan, then repeated the feat the following year.

In 1999, when Fisher took the San Diego State job, one of his first moves was to hire Dutcher as the top assistant.

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Their first Aztecs team won five games. Their current team has been ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation.

Since Fisher and Dutcher arrived, San Diego State has consistently secured top-25 recruiting classes, and the Aztecs have produced two NBA players in the last three years — Kawhi Leonard, a standout for San Antonio in last year’s NBA Finals, and Jamaal Franklin, who plays for Memphis.

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Through it all, Fisher and Dutcher have become so close that their wives, Jan Dutcher and Angie Fisher, talk on the phone most days and their kids grew up around each other’s families.

“I don’t think he could ever fire me,” Dutcher jokes. “Angie wouldn’t let him.”

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Around Aztecs, the concept of family is inescapable. The coaches live it and the players feel it.

“The reason why I chose this place is because Coach Fisher and Coach Dutcher are good coaches, but I also see them as father figures,” says Angelo Chol, a transfer from Arizona who is sitting out the season.

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On the sideline, Dutcher brings a highly respected basketball IQ to the table. Players and fellow coaches use such terms as “basketball genius” and “mastermind” when talking about him.

“When he goes in to prepare for another team, he goes into his office, closes the doors, and you’ll see papers everywhere. All over the desks, all over the floor, and he’s talking to the TV,” says Tony Bland, a USC assistant who played for Fisher and Dutcher and later coached with them. “Then when the game comes, he’s calm.”

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Handling players, the coaches have slightly different styles, and have been known to play a little good cop-bad cop.

“One time, we played against Arizona and I had a terrible start,” recalls Bland, who played two seasons for San Diego State, from 2001-03. “I came over to the bench and Coach Fisher put his hands on my head and said, ‘Come on, bud. You’re the leader of this team. In order for us to win, you’ve gotta continue to work hard, play hard, take those shots.’”

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When Fisher was finished with him, Dutcher delivered a similar message using a different approach.

“You shot all the shots anyway,” he deadpanned. “We just need you to keep shooting them.”

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Says Bland: “It was great. Coach Fisher calmed me down and then Dutcher made me laugh. And that shows how they complement each other.”

Dutcher’s reputation has prompted interest from programs seeking a head coach from time to time, but they all have been turned away. That’s the kind of loyalty he has to his longtime friend and the program they built together.

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“You can go somewhere else, and I’ve been approached about other jobs,” Dutcher says, “but the ability to take over something you helped build from a five-win team to a top-five team in the nation — this program is where I want to be.”

james.barragan@latimes.com


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