|Put Fisher as a top-five Coach of the Year candidate for sure. (Getty Images)|
By Jeff Goodman
Steve Fisher was reluctant to use the word "rebuilding" connected with this team after San Diego State's veteran coach lost four starters -- including lottery pick Kawhi Leonard -- following last season.
"I was a bit nervous," he admitted.
A bridge year is a more appropriate term.
Whatever the case, the Aztecs coaching staff privately hoped they could extend their streak of 20-plus win seasons and also get to the NIT. Fisher has already won 20 games with a half-dozen regular-season contests left on the slate -- and the Aztecs were ranked 13th in the nation prior to Saturday's last-second road loss at UNLV.
"We've got good players," Fisher said after the loss.
Good players. He's right, but that's usually not enough to be ranked in the Top 25.
Fisher deserves heavy consideration for National Coach of the Year for what he's done thus far this season. Usually when a program like San Diego State loses guys like Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay and Billy White, it quickly becomes nationally irrelevant.
Instead, the Aztecs are 20-4 and are tied with UNLV and New Mexico atop the Mountain West heading into Wednesday's home matchup with the Lobos.
No one realized that junior guard Chase Tapley (16.2 ppg) would quickly turn into one of the elite guards on the west coast or that athletic sophomore Jamaal Franklin (16 ppg, 7.3 rpg) would emerge as a big-time player after limited playing time last season.
Fisher has done this with virtually nothing up front. Tim Shelton gets the most out of his ability, but he's had multiple knee injuries that have turned him into an undersized grinder who isn't a threat on the offensive end. Fisher was so thin on the frontline that he wound up taking LSU one-year transfer Garrett Green and has started him 15 games this season. The 6-foot-4 Franklin has been forced to play power forward much of the time due to the lack of quality big men.
Next year was supposed to be the year that San Diego State was back.
Tapley and Franklin will be upperclassmen, fellow starters James Rahon and Xavier Thames will also be back.
Fisher will have transfers Dwayne Polee (St. John's) and J.J. O'Brien (Utah) eligible from the outset and big man James Johnson (Virginia) will be available after the first semester.
"We'll be more talented, but the key will be the chemistry and playing together," Tapley said. "I honestly think we have the talent next season to go all the way to the Final Four."
But Tapley and his teammates aren't thinking about next year just yet.