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After Fighting Through Adversity, Success is Sweet for Polee

San Diego State junior Dwayne Polee II.
San Diego State junior Dwayne Polee II.

March 24, 2014

Michael Klitzing
Go.Aztecs.com

SAN DIEGO - Dwayne Polee II sported a relaxed smile as he spoke to the press at Viejas Arena on Monday afternoon. It was the smile of a man finally at peace with his role on one of the nation's best men's basketball teams.

And perhaps more importantly, the smile of a man who'd already completed the near-impossible task of handing out his allotment of six tickets for Thursday's Sweet 16 game in Anaheim. The junior from just up the road in Los Angeles had no shortage of inquiries from family and friends wanting to see the No. 4-seeded Aztecs take on top-seeded Arizona. It made for some tough decisions.

"I've had to ration those out pretty fairly," he said. "We're going to have a pretty good crowd that's going to travel down."

For the record, the seats are spoken for by Polee's mom, dad, sister, aunt, and two uncles. Consider it a fitting reward for some of the folks who helped lift him up during one of the toughest, most frustrating stretches he has ever experienced as a basketball player.

It's a stretch that seems so distant now.

As the Aztecs stand on the cusp of their deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history, it's hard to imagine them being in this position without Polee. The junior was named the Mountain West Conference Sixth Man of the year after an impressive stretch drive that helped spur the Aztecs to the regular season conference championship. Yet two and a half months ago, few would have seen this coming.

Polee transferred to SDSU amid great fanfare after starting 27 games as a freshman at St. John's. He was already well known out west for his highlight reel dunks and stellar career at Westchester High, where he earned both Los Angeles City and California State player of the year honors.

But in his first year and a half on the Aztecs roster, Aztecs fans knew Polee more for what he didn't do. He didn't start. He didn't get many minutes. He didn't show many flashes of his sky-high potential when he did see the floor. Polee averaged a mere 9 minutes a game as a sophomore last season, and at the midway point of this year, he was buried deep on the bench. Before conference began, he didn't log more than 18 minutes against any Division I opponent. In a Feb. 1 game against Colorado State, he saw two minutes of action.

And the last time the Aztecs played Arizona, on Nov. 14 at Viejas, he didn't need to take off his warm-ups at all. Mark it down as "DNP - coach's decision."

Inside the locker room, though, the other things Polee didn't do made an impression on the coaching staff. He didn't pout. Didn't let his frustration boil over. Didn't check out mentally.

"Dwayne Polee is what every coach in America should show his team on how to deal with adversity and how to deal with frustration," said Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher. "Dwayne was the greatest guy in the locker room when he didn't play and we won. You didn't know he didn't play, which is easy to say but hard to do.

"But by doing that, he set himself up for when he got a chance. He wasn't brooding and lackluster with his concentration. He - and we - have benefited greatly from his demeanor and how he's approached every situation."

Ask Polee, though, and he'll admit it wasn't easy. Not for a player who was accustomed to being a star at every level of basketball in which he'd laced up sneakers.

"I went from coming from Westchester and starting all four years to going to St. John's and starting there for a year," he said. "So coming here and not really playing much - and not playing at all some games - really kind of hurt me. That was the first time I had ever faced that kind of adversity."

Fortunately, Polee had people there to pick him up. He said encouragement from his family - and support from his teammates - helped keep him positive. And it showed in how he responded.

"It just made me work harder," he said. "It made me hungry, knowing I had to fight for what I want and earn it."

Earned it he has. In SDSU's past 15 games, Polee has averaged 10.6 points -- including 15 apiece in NCAA Tournament wins over New Mexico State and North Dakota State. He's provided a much-needing perimeter scoring threat to go with the huge hops that have earned him the nickname "Tram-Polee."

But perhaps more important is the way he has disrupted opposing offenses with his tenacity and gangly limbs that always seem to be in the way of passes. In fact, one of his most impressive games coincided with one of his lowest scoring outputs (4 points), as he bounded about the court spearheading the Aztecs' 1-3-1 zone defense that confounded New Mexico on March 15.

"Coach just kind of let me run wild," said Polee, recalling a game he clearly relishes. "I was like a bull in a china shop going crazy up there."

Said senior point guard Xavier Thames: "Dwayne has been working on his game every day since the summertime, and now he's showing everybody what he's been grinding for. It's been great to see him play like that because he's worked real hard for it."

As Polee has proven his mettle on the court, the playing time has mounted. Over the past four games, he has logged 27, 27, 29, and 30 minutes. And this time against Arizona, you can safely bet the only way he'll play zero minutes is if he somehow misses the bus.

For Polee, that's all the more reason to smile.

"This is big-time, marquee basketball," he said. "This is what every basketball player dreams about, being in the Sweet 16 and playing against a top-tier school. It's a dream come true for me."