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Klitzing: #AztecMBB Has Chance to Leave Lasting Legacy

Xavier Thames and the Aztecs head to Spokane for the NCAA tournament.
Xavier Thames and the Aztecs head to Spokane for the NCAA tournament.

March 16, 2014

Michael Klitzing
Go.Aztecs.com

SAN DIEGO - As the San Diego State men's basketball team assembled on the Viejas Arena floor Sunday to learn its NCAA Tournament fate, all eyes were trained on the large flat screen set up at center court showing the CBS Selection Show broadcast. That was, after all, where the Aztecs would catch a glimpse of their next destination and opponent.

But had anyone taken a quick glance up to the rafters, they would have also caught a glimpse what's within their grasp over these next few days.

Among the 11 banners that adorn the west side of the arena, one stands out alongside the bevy of Mountain West titles won since 2002. Emblazoned with the NCAA logo, it signifies SDSU's 2011 Sweet 16 appearance - the deepest run in the program's history and the icing on the cake for a 34-3 season that is universally acclaimed as the best Aztecs team ever.

Should the stars align this week in Spokane, the 2011 team may soon have company in that conversation.

For the Aztecs (29-4), who open play in the West Region as a No. 4 seed on Thursday against No. 13 New Mexico State (26-9), another deep run would add a lasting sheen on a season that already includes its share of signature moments, from a title at the Wooden Legacy to a win at Kansas to regular season Mountain West Conference title.

"They've already endeared themselves to these people with the season we've had," head coach Steve Fisher said, gesturing in the direction of the 1,000 or so fans who opted to spend a glorious San Diego afternoon inside to celebrate their Aztecs one more time. "But now we're excited and determined that we're going to do what the `10-11 team did: Get those first two wins in and go to Anaheim. Then we'll say `Let's do what San Diego State has never done.'"

"But," Fisher cautioned with the caveat of all caveats, "we've got to win one game first."

That first game has added intrigue because it comes against a familiar foe. The Western Athletic Conference tournament champion Aggies are coached by former Fisher assistant Marvin Menzies, while former SDSU forward and fan favorite Aerick Sanders is also on the staff. And should the Aztecs advance, they would likely face No. 5 seed Oklahoma and former UNLV head coach Lon Kruger in a rematch of last year's Tournament second round (a game won by SDSU).

Yet the familiarity that could benefit the Aztecs the most is their comfort level with the tournament itself - one of the little perks of making the field for five consecutive seasons and hanging all those banners.

"When you get down to the nitty-gritty in the tournament, you want guys who have been there before," said senior forward JJ O'Brien. "I think that's going to help us."

Indeed, four of SDSU's five starters played two games in last year's Big Dance. Senior point guard Xavier Thames has three games under his belt and witnessed the Sweet 16 run from the bench during his redshirt season in 2011. They should know what it takes to succeed on the big stage, a formula Fisher summed up thusly: "maintaining our composure while competing like crazy."

If they manage to do just that twice in three days, they'll have more than a trip to Anaheim and another eye-catching banner to show for it. This group of Aztecs will have cemented a lasting legacy.

"We do want to be great," O'Brien said. "We want to win a national championship and go to the final four. That's where the motivation is.

"We want to leave that legacy and have other teams after us look back and say `We want to be just like that team.'"