COY: The case for Steve Fisher

San Diego State returned nearly everyone and was supposed to be good, but did anyone think the Aztecs would be this good?

This was a fringe top-25 team at the start of the season, unranked in the first ESPN/USA Today coaches poll. Now SDSU is 21-1, ranked sixth nationally and is very much in the Final Four conversation.

Much of this is due to the work of 65-year-old coach Steve Fisher, who more than two decades after winning a national title at Michigan is creating plenty of buzz for a program that isn’t used to reaching such great heights. This is, after all, a school still in search for its first NCAA tournament win.

The Aztecs, who returned all five starters off a tournament team that narrowly lost to Tennessee in the NCAA first round, didn’t let the expectations of Mountain West favorite get to them. And there were plenty of opportunities to lose focus during this team’s 20-game winning streak to open the season, which began with five straight games away from home. Oh, and how did the Aztecs respond to losing for the first time? Three days after the BYU game, they crushed Wyoming by 39.

After his team made an early statement with a win at Gonzaga, Fisher taught this team how to handle success, asking that his players enjoy it while realizing there’s more work to be done.

San Diego State has gotten better, too. Kawhi Leonard is averaging a double-double while improving his midrange game along with his NBA draft stock. Malcolm Thomas continues to play well in the frontcourt while point guard D.J. Gay has steadied the team. Fisher brought in 3-point shooting specialist James Rahon, and the transfer has been deadly from beyond the arc.

The way this team has performed has meant once-unthinkable sellout crowds for Viejas Arena and equally unthinkable and unprecedented national publicity for this once-sleepy program.

Well, the Aztecs aren’t sleeping anymore.

And a great deal of that credit goes to Fisher.