Aztecs Rediscover Roadmap to NCAA Postseason

March 12, 2018


By Mick McGrane, Senior Writer

The perception of late has been that of a poor man’s league, a sullied collection of second-rate riffraff whose chances of an NCAA Tournament bid lie somewhere between faint and the distant reaches of far-flung.

It’s the league where RPI collides with RIP, where Sagarin Ratings and kenpom and BPI are supposedly employed only in the event of emergency.

But what it has meant mostly to Mountain West teams in recent seasons is this: Either run the table in the conference tournament or be dismissed from the discussion.

Consider: In 2016, San Diego State tied the MW record for most victories in a single-league season (16), a mark shared by the program’s 2013-14 squad. It won the league by a record three games. Unfortunately, the Aztecs’ riotous run to the finish, a run terminated by Fresno State in the MW title game, couldn’t erase early-season inconsistencies, sins deemed unforgivable by the NCAA selection committee.

For the first time in six years, SDSU would do its postseason dancing outside the ballroom. There would be no NCAA Tournament bid, a feeling not only foreign to a proud program, but one it had little interest in becoming familiar.

“We were disappointed when we didn’t make the NCAA Tournament; that’s our goal every year,” then-head coach Steve Fisher said at the outset of the 2016-17 season. “We’ve always said that our primary goal was to win the conference, because for 16 straight years, as long as the league had been in existence, the Mountain West (regular-season) champion had gone to the tournament. Last season, that didn’t happen, even though we ran away with the conference.

“I’m disappointed that the perception of the league wasn’t better. The league was better than the perception, and yet we didn’t win enough non-league games. But we can start with ourselves. We can’t say that (the selection committee) overlooked us. We were a team that could’ve gotten in, but we were also a team where you could say, ‘This is why you didn’t get in.’ ”

Admitting one’s shortcomings is never easy, particularly when forced to face your failures a second time only a year later. In 2017, talk of a postseason appearance of any kind was silenced by a 71-63 loss to Colorado State in the semifinals of the conference tournament. It was sense of finality that hadn’t been experienced at SDSU in 12 years, a stretch that included 11 straight postseason appearances, seven of them in the NCAA Tournament.

“We went six straight years; we were a fixture of the tournament,” said first-year head coach Brian Dutcher. “And the year we didn’t go, we still went 16-2 (in the regular season) and won the conference. We fell off a little bit the following year. It was disappointing. But it’s like Coach Fisher said when we came here and started establishing ourselves: ‘We’re a program now; we’re not just a one-hit wonder.’ We expect to go to the NCAA Tournament every year.”

Trey Kell certainly did. The 6-4 senior guard honed his high school game at nearby St. Augustine, fully aware of the monster being manufactured on the Mesa. As a freshman at SDSU, Kell didn’t have to wait long to experience the postseason party as the Aztecs were awarded their sixth straight NCAA bid, knocking off St. John’s in their opening game before falling to top-seeded Duke in the third round.

For Kell, the unquestioned cornerstone of a team that’s muscled its way to nine straight wins, SDSU’s return to the NCAA Tournament is not merely overdue, its arrival comes with the clock ticking on a career that has seen him become one of 11 active players with 1,300 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals.

“I’m so happy to be back in this position. I wanted to get back so bad,” said Kell, who ensured such an event would transpire after scoring a career-high 28 points in the team’s win over New Mexico in the MW championship game on Saturday. “It hurt the last two years not being a part of it. When we had the opportunity again this year, I didn’t want to let it slip away.”

After missing parts of eight games through mid-February, Kell has helped fuel a win streak that has featured an average margin of victory of 13.3 points. “Coming into this year, we expected to go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Dutcher, whose No. 11 seed Aztecs square off against No. 6 seed Houston in Wichita on Thursday. “Now, the path was not smooth. There were bumps in the road along the way. There were injuries, there were some tough losses, but this team always believed they were good enough. We had to put together a magical stretch over the last four weeks to make that happen.”

A magical stretch that has allowed Kell and former senior Malik Pope to come full circle.

“Looking back at my freshman year and the success we had going to the tournament, this sort of seems like deja vu,” Pope said. “But you can’t look back. We’ve got unfinished business ahead of us and I’m excited about taking advantage of the opportunity.”

An opportunity for SDSU to regain its standing as one of the nation’s premier programs, a program where postseasons routinely include raucous Selection Sundays, not rueful moments of reflection.

“We don’t expect to have a year like last year, not ever,” Kell said. “You use it for motivation. Obviously, there were times this year when it wasn’t looking too good either with all the injuries I went through. But then you remember, there’s always March.”

Let the madness run its course.

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