Madness on the Mesa to usher in Fisher's most hyped Aztecs squad yet

Expectations have never been higher for a San Diego State basketball team than the one Steve Fisher will unveil during Friday night's Madness on the Mesa.

After reaching the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, the Aztecs return four of their five starters and welcome a highly touted recruiting class that includes three Division I transfers and three freshmen.

Fisher hasn't been a big fan of Midnight Madness and will save the serious stuff for practice on Saturday, which will be closed to the public.

But the hoops team is now the biggest thing going on Montezuma Mesa.

"My preference is to do it in a closed setting, and when we have our first game, we open ourselves to the public," Fisher said. "But there has been such an outcry from first our players and then the students and everybody to have a Midnight Madness this year. So we're very excited about it. A lot of people have put in a lot of work, and I'm hoping I don't fall asleep before it's over.

"It will be smoke and mirrors and all kinds of stuff that will have no relevance on our team, but it's going to be fun. ...Then we'll start practice on Saturday to get ourselves ready for the season."

The good news for the 67-year-old Fisher is that it's not a true Midnight Madness, but one that starts at 9 p.m.

The Aztecs have a tough opener, both in opponent and atmosphere. They'll play Syracuse on Nov. 9 in the inaugural Battle on the Midway on the flight deck of the decommissioned USS Midway on San Diego Bay.

After that, the Aztecs can look forward to beginning a home schedule that's already sold out.

"The anticipation and excitement that everybody's talked about, a sellout arena, an atmosphere that most in the country would die to have in their building, we have. We want to continue to have that," Fisher said.

The Aztecs had their best season ever two years ago, going 34-3 and earning the first two NCAA tournament victories in school history. They reached the regional semifinals before losing to eventual national champion UConn.

After losing four starters off that team, including Kawhi Leonard to the NBA, last season was supposed to be a transition year to this season's recruiting class. Instead, the Aztecs shared the Mountain West Conference regular-season title with New Mexico and reached the tournament title game before losing to the Lobos. They returned to the NCAAs for the third straight year, this time as a No. 6 seed, before a lack of height and inside bulk cost them in a second-round loss to North Carolina State.

Thus the buildup to this season.

"I would say it's probably the most talked about team that we've had," Fisher said. "To be honest with you, right now it's not the best team we've had. I'll harken back to the first time we ever got ranked two years ago. I knew how good that team was because they had all those guys at a very high level that had done it the year before and were returning. You might say, 'Well you had guys returning from last year.' We do, but not to that degree in terms of the numbers that we had then, and they were all going to be seniors, too, with the exception of Kawhi, who played like a senior.

"Yeah, it's the most hyped-up team. We won't match the record we had two years ago. 34-3. There is nobody in the country that's going to do that, but we're going to have a good team."

Junior guard Jamaal Franklin, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, leads four returning starters. The others are senior guard James Rahon, senior guard Chase Tapley and junior guard Xavier Thames.

The Division I transfers who sat out last season but practiced with the team are all sophomore forwards: Dwayne Polee from St. John's, JJ O'Brien from Utah and James Johnson from Virginia. Johnson will be eligible mid-year. He is 6-foot-9 while Polee and O'Brien are 6-7.

The freshmen are forwards Winston Shepard, Matt Shrigley and Skylar Spencer. The 6-9 Shepard was cited for marijuana possession on campus in late June.

The challenge for Fisher will be finding minutes for everybody.

"We have 11 guys that all think they're positively going to start, so it will be competitive," he said. "That will be everybody's challenge to earn your opportunity, and I'm not going to pick the starting lineup. Our players will help me decide who is going to be out there, and our starting lineup in all probability will vary, especially early."

Fisher said playing time for Franklin, Tapley and Rahon will probably drop some.

"We'll have more players that will play. Last year we had a limited squad to choose from. This year we've got a lot of guys and they can all play. So that will be part of what we try to kind of find out about as we move forward. We've got to say, 'How can we play more people?' That is part of my job, too.

"They'll be a fun team to watch, and hopefully a successful team as we move forward," Fisher said.