HOUSTON – Aguek Arop tucked his 6-foot-6 frame into the seat for his flight back home after an abrupt and gut-wrenching end to San Diego State's 2019-20 season. Then, he pulled up a video on his phone that brought the pain into focus.
It was a compilation made by SDSU director of basketball operations Matt Soria of footage from the season for the Aztecs, who were 30-2 and projected as a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament before the event's cancellation amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It was all of his favorite moments from throughout the year," Arop said. "And that's when it hit me. I watched that video and I was crying a little bit."
More than three years have passed since a day that members of the Aztecs' program still describe as "devastating" and "sad." SDSU would have matched or improved upon its best NCAA Tournament seeding in program history after a 26-0 start that saw the SDSU rise to No. 4 in the AP poll.
Then, in the blink of an eye, a program that was barreling toward a golden opportunity to go on a run in the NCAA Tournament had its best season in years ripped away by circumstances outside its control.
"It was a feeling that you can't really put in words," said Jared Barnett, who was a freshman on that team.
But out of the heartbreak of an abruptly canceled 2020 postseason, came a foundation on which the No. 5 seed Aztecs stand as they prepare to play No. 9 seed FAU in the program's first-ever Final Four game on Saturday night.
Five players who were on the 2019-20 team are still on the roster, and four of them play significant minutes for coach Brian Dutcher, who is now in his sixth season.
"For the five of us who were on the team, making the Final Four was a real special moment," Arop said. "We lost it in 2020, we lost that opportunity. Just knowing that at any moment we could lose it, we just have a new sense of appreciation."
Similar vibes accompanied Baylor during its 2021 national championship and Kansas in its title run last season. The Bears were ranked No. 5 when the 2020 season ended, and Kansas was ranked No. 1, which made the abrupt ending to that campaign similarly painful for them amid realistic championship aspirations.
But the Bears and Jayhawks were well-established Big 12 programs with recent runs to remember and the talent to quickly make it back to the top.
The Aztecs, by contrast, were enjoying being ranked for the first time in five years when the season was canceled. Then, they lost three starters from the 2019-20 squad, including leading scorer and consensus All-American guard Malachi Flynn.
San Diego State still reached the NCAA Tournament the next two seasons but lost in the first round both times while lacking just a bit of the high-end talent that propelled the 2019-20 team to such great heights.
But the group of Arop, Barnett, Nathan Mensah, Keshad Johnson and Adam Seiko soldiered on to help this group of Aztecs finish what the 2019-20 team started.
"We're doing it for those guys," Seiko said. "I'm constantly talking to them, telling them how much I love them, how much I wish they could be here with us in this position. But they're so happy for us. And we're just blessed to be here."
Jordan Schakel, who was a junior on the 2019-20 team, attended the team's Elite Eight win over Creighton in Louisville and made his way on to the court to celebrate with the team.
"I hope that our success is giving them a sense of joy and happiness and some kind of fulfillment," Mensah said. "So that's one thing I hope we're able to do for them."
Seiko remembered being at home watching on ESPN when the season was canceled. Arop said he got a phone call from one of the SDSU coaches. Barnett recalled being at an on-campus restaurant with teammates as news started to trickle in of sporting event cancelations.
Mensah may have been caught off guard more than the others. He had just been cleared to resume playing after a knee injury and texted Flynn with the good news.
"Haven't you heard?" Flynn responded
That was how the one of the best seasons in SDSU history ended three years ago, and it makes the Aztecs unique in this Final Four. UConn, Miami and FAU were not on track to receive NCAA Tournament bids in 2020 and didn't deal with the same level of devastation amid the postseason's cancelation.
But the Aztecs haven't forgotten what was lost in 2020.
"We always had that in the back of our head that we should have been here," Barnett said. "We've always been trying to get that back and get back to that point we missed out on."
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