Wadleigh: SDSU’s Dream Season 25 Years in the Making

From the rebirth of the Aztecs under Steve Fisher to their continued rise under Brian Dutcher

Posted on April 5, 2023

  By Matt Wadleigh, SuperWest Sports

The San Diego State Aztecs played for the college basketball national championship.

Yes, that sentence is true.

And while the result of the game didn’t end up as fans wanted, it’s still an unforgettable run.

How did the program get there?

It started back in 1999 when Steve Fisher was brought on board as the new coach of San Diego State. The Aztecs hadn’t made the tournament since 1985, and Fred Trenkle won 55 games from 1994-1999.

SDSU was not a basketball school—far from it.

Cox Arena was empty, and Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher even handed out free tickets by the bunch to get fans and students to come to watch their games.

Steve Fischer revived the Aztec program | Jayne Kamin-Oncea/IUSA TODAY Sports

Then, in 2002, the Aztecs won the conference tournament and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly two decades.

The result? A 93-64 blowout against Illinois. In 2006, the Aztecs returned and lost to Indiana in a 67-63 final.

In 2010, the shift began. The Aztecs made the Big Dance once again but lost to Tennessee by three points.

However, 2010 was the beginning of a 6-year stretch of consecutive NCAA appearances, including a Sweet 16 trip that saw their season end against UConn and Kemba Walker.

The Aztecs watched legendary head coach Steve Fisher retire and hand the team over to Brian Dutcher, who made the tournament in 2018, 2021, and 2022, all resulting in first-round losses.

The 30-win team was on track for a two-seed before COVID ruined those dreams.

On Monday, April 4, 2023, the Aztecs took the court in a 70,000-plus-seat football stadium to play for the national championship.

What does that mean for Aztecs fans, alumni, coaches, and anybody whose ever been a part of this program?

It means everything.

Don’t misunderstand: This is not a Cinderella story.

This is something that has been building since 1999 when Fisher and Dutcher came to the Mesa (h/t John Fanta).

Viejas Arena for the National Title game | Chris Stone/Times of San Diego

“Culture is 24 years at one place. That’s where I’ve been. That’s culture.”

This has been brewing, and the pot overflowed with memorable games, unforgettable moments, and lifelong dreams for the players, coaches, and fans.

Will the Aztecs get back to the national title game anytime soon? Who knows.

The game of college basketball is incredibly difficult, and the NCAA Tournament and the one-and-done scenarios make it even more tricky.

But none of that matters.

For the past few weeks, the Aztecs were a national sensation. For the past 10 days leading up to the Final Four, all eyes were on Brian Dutcher and this program.

Cox Arena was empty for games when Fisher and Dutcher arrived, and it took time to put together a quality roster.

Now, the Aztecs have had 10 NCAA appearances since 2010, three trips to the Sweet 16, and a trip to the Final Four and the National Championship Game.

The Aztecs beat No. 1 overall seed Alabama | Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

The Aztecs knocked off the top overall seed in the Alabama Crimson Tide, and they ended the run of a 33-win Florida Atlantic team.

From Micah Parrish’s three against Charleston to Matt Bradley’s all-out effort against Alabama, Darrion Trammel’s game-winning free throw over Creighton, and Lamont Butler’s unforgettable buzzer-beater against Florida Atlantic in the Final Four, this Aztecs team will be remembered forever.

Fans, former players, and even Steve and Mark Fisher traveled to Houston for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Yes, it didn’t end with the hoisting of the trophy, but all the hard work for the last 25 years paid off.

It’s all worth it.

—More from Matt Wadleigh—