San Diego State is in the spotlight now, but the Aztecs’ blue-collar approach has often been overlooked as it toils in the shadows of power-conference programs.
“Dance, sing, or get out of the way.”
That was head coach Brian Dutcher’s proud proclamation in the San Diego State locker room following his team’s Final Four-clinching win over Creighton last week. The joyful rallying cry from a longtime pillar of the program is the perfect encapsulation of the Aztecs’ rise to national prominence:
You’re either with us or you’re against us. We don’t really care either way.
An irrelevant program in the late ‘90s, San Diego State suddenly finds itself 40 minutes away from its first title. If the nation is shocked by the Aztecs playing in the title game, just know that nobody within the program is surprised by this run.
“We have a national perception now,” Dutcher told Heat Check CBB. “I think everybody out west has always known we’ve been good. But now that we’re playing on the biggest stage, and we’re winning on the biggest stage — I think a lot like when Gonzaga made that step, they did it on a national stage. And that’s how they gained their respect.”
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Even if they weren’t always soaking in the national spotlight, San Diego State has been slowly but surely ramping up to this moment for the past two-plus decades.
The Aztecs have never had a five-star recruit. Despite its Mountain West supremacy, the brand awareness around SDSU sits distantly behind the likes of UCLA, USC, Oregon and even Gonzaga when West Coast college sports are seen on a national level. Nevertheless, the school’s .762 winning percentage since 2010-11 only ranks behind Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke, Arizona and Kentucky.
While Gonzaga has been able to shed the ‘mid-major’ moniker for the most part, SDSU is still fighting that battle — although Dutcher thinks that may soon change.
“Hopefully this national stage will give us national respect. That’s what I think it will do,” Dutcher said.
Although this is by far the most high-profile game in program history, it’s also far from the first time the Aztecs have made it onto the national stage. There are many examples to point at throughout the tenures of Dutcher and his predecessor Steve Fisher, but perhaps none more salient than the 2011 run to the Sweet 16.
Of course, the hero of that season was the most decorated Aztec ever, Kawhi Leonard, who perfectly embodies the blue-collar persona of the SDSU program.
A top-60 recruit out of the 2009 class, Leonard received interest from traditional Pac-12 powers but only had an official offer from San Diego State. He turned in an All-American season and 34-win campaign as a sophomore and will be a surefire Hall of Fame selection once his storied career concludes.
In modern basketball’s obsession with social media engagement and over-the-top fashion, Leonard’s low-profile personality and media disinterest stick out like a sore thumb. A half-smile is rare, and he won’t stick around for press conferences any longer than necessary. It’s been this way for years now.
“He was just trying to mind his own business, play basketball and be around the people he wants to be around,” former SDSU assistant coach Justin Hutson told the Los Angeles Times in 2019 about Leonard’s recruitment process.
Naturally, San Diego State’s best season ever was built by players of a similar mindset. In particular, the Aztec backcourt features two small guards who have closed the size gap through hard work, grit and focus.
Still, Dutcher joked about the stature of Saturday’s hero, Lamont Butler, harkening back to when he first scouted the scrawny, innocent-looking guard out of Riverside, California.
“I’ve got a picture of Lamont that I showed him when he visited,” Dutcher said. “He was probably barely below my shoulders, that’s how young he was when I first met Lamont.”
If Butler measured to Dutcher’s shoulders, starting point guard Darrion Trammell — entirely ignored by Divison I programs out of high school — must have scaled to Dutcher’s chest. Generously listed at 5-10, the JUCO-turned-Seattle U standout had 21 points in SDSU’s Sweet 16 win against top overall seed Alabama, and then he hit the game-winning free throw in the Elite Eight thriller versus Creighton.
Even despite the humble beginnings of San Diego State’s primary contributors over the years, the Aztecs still expect the same consistency year in and year out. That reliability comes from the type of player the SDSU coaches are looking to bring into the fold. Dutcher and his staff want to see high hands on a 3-point close-out more than a McDonald’s All-American badge.
Indeed, the Aztecs are built on the understanding that respect is earned, not given.
“It’s not fake here,” Butler said. “It’s all honesty from the jump that we’re not going to promise you (playing time) but if you play defense and you play hard, you’ll be on the floor.”
Trammell shared a similar perspective: “It’s a mid-major program but, at the same time, it has a high-major feel to it. They’re going to go to the tournament pretty much every year. We’re getting the high-major feel, but it’s still a mid-major where politics don’t play as much into it.”
San Diego State has long carried an inherent chip on its shoulder, and that sharp edge can be traced back to when the iconic Steve Fisher instilled his defend-or-go-somewhere-else brashness into the program. The team’s playing style, at best, can be described as gritty, physical and hard-nosed. At worst, it may venture closer to an eyesore, some grotesque bastardization of a beautiful game. Fans of fast-paced, high-scoring hoops need not apply, as no Aztec broadcast is complete without a ‘Scoring Drought’ ticker — whether for SDSU, its opponent or both.
Ultimately, San Diego State’s fans, coaches and players could not care less. So far, the approach has resulted in a decades-long period of dominance, and now it’s finally culminating in the Final Four run the program has always envisioned.
Though the Aztecs have never been here before, and they aren’t a traditional power on the national stage, this team should not be confused for a Fairleigh Dickinson or a Loyola Chicago; this is not a fluky Cinderella, nor a flash in the pan. In truth, there’s nothing flashy about this program.
It’s a team that spends its season toiling in the relative obscurity of late-night Mountain West games, a team comprised of soft-spoken and overlooked California scrappers, a team that scratches and claws its way through low-scoring, defensive slugfests.
San Diego State wouldn’t want it any other way.