Editor's note: Over the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 18: San Diego State's Steve Fisher. On Thursday, we release No. 17.
It really felt like last year would be the year.
San Diego State had been good, and occasionally great, in every season since 2009, but in 2010-11, the Aztecs had a breakthrough -- a 34-3 season fueled by a deep group of seniors, a ferocious and athletic defense, and a previously unheralded sophomore named Kawhi Leonard, who turned out to be pretty good. In the seasons since, the Aztecs were always solid at the very least, and Jamaal Franklin & Co. had another nice campaign in 2012-13 (before they met the Florida Gulf Coast woodchipper on the first weekend of the tournament).
But last summer, with Franklin gone to the NBA, four-year sharpshooter Chase Tapley graduated, and with few obvious high-level replacements, it was unclear exactly how the Aztecs would maintain their typical 25-win pace. The 2013-14 season would be the one when San Diego State finally, after six years of mostly uninterrupted excellence, went back to the rebuilding board. That was the consensus.
Instead, Steve Fisher's team lost one game (to Arizona) before Feb. 11. It finished the regular season 27-3, and 16-2 in the Mountain West. It played stifling, top-10 efficiency defense. It took Xavier Thames, a previously unremarkable role player, and turned him into a ruthless player of the year candidate who averaged nearly 18 points per game, a 24.7 assist rate, a tiny 10.7 percent turnover percentage and a 120.0 overall offensive rating. It became the first nonconference team in 68 games to beat Kansas at Kansas. In the third round of the NCAA tournament, the Aztecs ground North Dakota State's highly efficient offense into a fine 44-points-in-54-possessions dust. In the Sweet 16, Thames scored 25 thrilling points; the Aztecs went right at No. 1 seed Arizona and nearly pulled it off.
It was the second-best team of Fisher's tenure at San Diego State, and one that nobody, save Fisher and his staff, saw coming.
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