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San Diego State continues to test the definition of ‘mid-major’

San Diego State v Creighton
San Diego State players, from left, Jordan Schakel, Yanni Wetzell and KJ Feagin celebrate a teammate’s dunk during a tournament game Nov. 28 in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Jordan Schakel made winning a habit in high school. The 6-foot-6 guard won a school-record 118 games during his four-year career at Torrance Bishop Montgomery. He claimed state and Southern Section Open Division titles as a senior.

When he whittled his college choices to USC, California and San Diego State, Schakel looked for an opportunity to continue his winning ways. The first two had power conference prestige. The last one had something better.

“It’s one of the premier programs on the West Coast,” said Schakel, now a junior with the Aztecs. “I don’t feel like I’m losing anything coming to San Diego State at all.”

When it comes to chasing NCAA tournament berths and conference championships, San Diego State delivers. While UCLA and USC fight for relevancy in the Pac-12, the Aztecs have won 20 or more games in 13 of the last 14 years and went to the NCAA tournament in seven of the last 10 years.

San Diego State v Creighton
San Diego State’s Yanni Wetzell drives to the basket against Creighton’s Kelvin Jones.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
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Coming off a rare down year in which they didn’t make the NCAA tournament, the 11-0 Aztecs are one of four undefeated teams in Division I, along with Duquesne, Liberty and No. 12 Auburn.

San Diego State, ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll, has a road win at Brigham Young and a neutral-site victory Iowa. The Aztecs play Utah, which is coming off a win over No. 6 Kentucky, on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the first game of a doubleheader at Staples Center. USC plays Louisiana State at 6 p.m.

While USC may be the headliner Saturday, it’s San Diego State with the best resume.

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The Aztecs debuted in the NET ratings — the update of the RPI rankings that help determine a team’s NCAA tournament fate — at No. 3 and currently sit at No. 2.

This is from a program that before former head coach Steve Fisher took over in 1999 had just three NCAA tournament appearances in its first 29 years at the Division I level.

“We just rolled our sleeves up and went to work and that’s all it is,” said coach Brian Dutcher, who assisted Fisher at San Diego State for 18 years and took the top job three years ago. “It’s hard work.”

San Diego State v Creighton
Brian Dutcher assisted legendary San Diego State coach Steve Fisher for 18 years before getting the top job three years ago.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

It was Fisher going around campus with tickets in his pocket and handing them out to fans. It was recruiting the right players — they’re the essence of the team’s culture, Dutcher insists — then letting them play freely on game days. And then it was staying the course when Fisher retired in 2017, ceding the top spot to his right-hand man.

“Most coaches, when they take a job, they say we have to change the culture,” Dutcher said. “My greatest task is to maintain the culture.”

Dutcher was officially the coach-in-waiting for six years. He earned the title after 2011 when Kawhi Leonard helped San Diego State to its first Sweet 16 appearance.

A few days before his 58th birthday, Dutcher finally had his first head coaching job at any level. His patience is one of his most valuable qualities as a coach, junior guard Matt Mitchell said.

A San Diego State assistant quickly realized Kawhi Leonard was unlike any other recruit he’d pursued, and not only because of his physical gifts.

The program’s patience has been tested during the last four years, which have included three seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance. Last year’s team with five freshmen and three sophomores stumbled at the last hurdle, losing in the Mountain West Conference tournament final when a win would have earned them an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

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One year older with an injection of veteran talent via the transfer portal, the Aztecs are ready to dance in March again.

“These guys that came in and bought into our program and our culture, our defensive mind-set, will definitely help us go hopefully long into the March tournament,” said Mitchell, the team’s sixth man and second-leading scorer at 11.5 points per game. “If everybody buys in and keeps the defensive mind-set then we have a long road ahead of us.”

After watching Texas Tech reach the national championship game with two graduate transfers last year, Dutcher took note. Only in special cases can a large group of freshmen succeed immediately, Dutcher said.

He saw one first hand as an assistant for Michigan’s Fab Five, which helped the Wolverines reach consecutive national title games. He has great respect for coaches who can do it often, such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski or Kentucky’s John Calipari, but for the rest of the nation, it’s about being old.

SDSU vs. San Jose State Basketball 12/8/19
San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn celebrates after making the game-winning three pointer with one second left Dec. 8 against San Jose State.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

So Dutcher added two fifth-year graduate transfers: forward Yanni Wetzell (Vanderbilt) and guard KJ Feagin (Santa Clara). Former Washington State guard Malachi Flynn leads the team in scoring with 15.6 points per game.

“The reason we’re in the position we’re in kind of early is because we had a veteran team to start the year and we hit the ground running,” Dutcher said. “I think that, as a mid-major, or a non-Power Five conference, that’s what you have to do.”

San Diego State tests the definition of “mid-major.” Despite playing in the Mountain West, the Aztecs consistently seem capable of making a deep tournament run. They expect to win, Schakel said, powered by a coaching staff that preaches elite defense.

Schakel acknowledges it’s hard work, doing defensive drills and committing to getting stops, but then again, hard work is what San Diego State was built on.

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“It’s why we win,” Schakel said. “At the end of the day, it produces a lot of wins and winning is what makes everyone happy.”


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