Originally Published: June 11, 2014

Top 50 coaches: No. 18 Steve Fisher

By ESPN.com

Steve FisherChristopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsSteve Fisher has come a long way since winning just five games in his first season at San Diego State.

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.

Coming off that kind of season, it's no surprise to see Fisher rank safely inside our ESPN Forecast panel's top 20 coaches. The only surprise is that he isn't ranked higher.

Fisher's program has been great for years now, but 2013-14 was his coaching magnum opus. In late December, by the time San Diego State made us sit up and take notice, Fisher swore up and down that he wasn't surprised by his team's performance. Thames was a dedicated and intelligent player who spent all offseason learning the nuances of off-dribble scoring. The rest of his team, mainly anonymous to the outside world, had been recruited with the understanding that to play for San Diego State, you needed to defend -- and that if you could really guard, you would stay on the court. There was no secret to it, he insisted. He wasn't running some new, mind-blowing system. His guys were guarding, and Thames was scoring the ball.

Steve Fisher
Kent C. Horner/Getty ImagesFisher's Aztecs have not missed the NCAA tournament since 2009.

Fair enough, but however Fisher wants to couch it, the fact of that matter is that he had to have those players in the first place. That's one overlooked aspect of Fisher's success. Few coaches have recruited the west coast more effectively in the past five years. Fisher hasn't always landed the top 10 players, but he has consistently found the right players for his system -- unselfish, athletic, defensively minded. Once found, Fisher and his staff must be among the most consistent in the country in delivering their message, their emphases, their style of play. And then those players develop.

Thames is the latest, and maybe the best, example. He arrived from Washington State as a transfer in 2010. After sitting out the required year, Thames was a solid but unspectacular point guard role guy. As a sophomore, he scored 10.4 points and had 4.1 assists per game, but his turnover rate was high (22.9 percent), and he shot just 30.8 percent from 3. Thames was quietly dinged up as a junior, which kept his profile nice and low. Last summer, when he was touted as the best player SDSU had returning, it wasn't meant as a compliment.

And then he went off. More usage, more points, yes, but also more efficient, a much better shooter, with far fewer turnovers per possession. He was the lone offensive weapon on a team built around his ability to score from anywhere, and he defended about as well as anyone on a very good defensive team to boot. And so San Diego State, facing what looked like a rebuild, had a massive year.

There are a handful of coaches in college basketball you never doubt. You assume their teams will be good no matter what the returning minutes or recruiting classes look like. You assume they'll always get it done. It's a rarefied place. After 2013-14, Fisher is in that group.

-- Eamonn Brennan

Previous: Nos. 50-25 No. 24: McKillop No. 23: McDermott No. 22: Amaker
No. 21: Brown No. 20: Matta No. 19: Wright

Full Top 50 Coaches List

No. 50: Tie -- Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's; Scott Drew, Baylor

No. 49: Richard Pitino, Minnesota

No. 48: Stew Morrill, Utah State

No. 47: Bob Hoffman, Mercer

No. 46: John Thompson III, Georgetown

No. 45: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

No. 44: Rick Barnes, Texas

No. 43: Chris Mack, Xavier

No. 42: Josh Pastner, Memphis

No. 41: Ed Cooley, Providence

No. 40: Bruce Weber, Kansas State

No. 39: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech

No. 38: Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech

No. 37: Rick Byrd, Belmont

No. 36: Steve Alford, UCLA

No. 35: Phil Martelli, Saint Joseph's

No. 34: Tad Boyle, Colorado

No. 33: Fran McCaffery, Iowa

No. 32: Tim Miles, Nebraska

No. 31: Lon Kruger, Oklahoma

No. 30: Bob Huggins, West Virginia

No. 29: Jim Crews, Saint Louis

No. 28: Jim Larranaga, Miami

No. 27: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

No. 26: Archie Miller, Dayton

No. 25: Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh

No. 24: Bob McKillop, Davidson

No. 23: Greg McDermott, Creighton

No. 22: Tommy Amaker, Harvard

No. 21: Larry Brown, SMU

No. 20: Thad Matta, Ohio State

No. 19: Jay Wright, Villanova

No. 18: Steve Fisher, San Diego State


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