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Aztecs exude a familiar confidence as Sweet 16 awaits

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher and San Diego State met with members of the media on Wednesday afternoon at Honda Center.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher and San Diego State met with members of the media on Wednesday afternoon at Honda Center.

March 26, 2014

By Michael Klitzing
Go.Aztecs.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. - As Josh Davis surveyed the San Diego State men's basketball team's locker room at the Honda Center on Wednesday afternoon, the senior forward couldn't help but chuckle at what he saw. With a throng of media descending on the cramped quarters following the open practice session, junior guard Aqeel Quinn commandeered a video camera and circulated the room to conduct his own pregame interviews. His teammates gladly played along.

Mark it down as just another instance of Aqeel being Aqeel.

"He's always energetic and making everybody laugh," said Davis. "Look at him right now going around with the camera. He's such a great guy and we love the energy he brings."

One day before arguably the biggest game in the history of the SDSU athletics - a Sweet 16 matchup with top-seeded Arizona on Thursday night - Aztecs' players seemed focused on the task at hand. They seemed excited for the opportunity to face a top-caliber opponent. But they also seemed to be having a blast.

Maybe it's an early indication that the moment is not too big for these Aztecs.

"We know what the stakes are with the rematch against Arizona," Davis said. "It's a big moment for us. But at the same time we're just going to play our same game."

And that means exuding the same composure and confidence. That's exactly what they've done, night after night, throughout the twists and turns of this magical 31-win season. The even-keel demeanor they maintain has no-doubt played a part in enabling the Aztecs to rise to the occasion in some heady situations that might have caused other squads to buckle.

They won back-to-back games against ranked teams (Creighton and Marquette) to win the Wooden Legacy here in Orange County. They then ignored the fact that no one wins at Kansas and won at Kansas.

And in the past few weeks they shrugged off a 16-point deficit to win the Mountain West championship, and they kept their cool and regrouped in overtime after squandering a late lead in their NCAA Tournament opener against New Mexico State.

"We've been in so many of those types of situations - in tight games where we've come back and won," Davis said. "There are not many that we didn't come back and win."

One of those they didn't was against the Wildcats, who won 69-60 at Viejas Arena on Nov. 14. The West Coast blue-blood program features stars Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, and has knocked off SDSU in tightly-contested games in each of the past two seasons.

Yet the Aztecs' confidence heading into the rematch doesn't seem to have wavered. Tim Shelton, SDSU's director of player development who has been a part of the past seven squads as a player or staff member, said that confidence is a reflection of the types of players the Aztecs target and attract.

"San Diego State is still fairly new to the limelight and this stage of basketball," he said, "but at the same time we're recruiting guys who expect to be there."

And as for the even-keel way the team goes about its business? Shelton said that filters down from the top.

"We have one of the best in the business in terms of how you react after a win or after a loss," he said of head coach Steve Fisher. "It's being completely even-keel and never showing signs on frustration or doubt or anything of that nature. Part of that is who he is and part of it is his confidence in (the players) and their capability to prepare.

"That's directly reflected in our guys and how they go out there and have fun. Look at how we were shooting half-court shots in practice."

Indeed, it was quite a sight. Halfway through SDSU's allotted practice time Wednesday, Fisher gathered his team at the middle of the Honda Center floor for the team photo - but first, he let each of his players lob up a half-court shot.

Point guard Xavier Thames rattled his home, drawing hearty applause from the few hundred spectators peppering the arena's lower bowl. And it drew laughs and grins from his teammates.

If the Aztecs are still smiling late Thursday night, the team's unflappable demeanor may well be one of the reasons why.