As much as the undefeated and fourth-ranked San Diego State Aztecs want to establish their own identity, there’s simply no escaping comparisons with the team Kawhi Leonard helped thrust into national prominence nine seasons ago.
That’s a good thing, of course, because Leonard led SDSU to a No. 4 ranking and a 20-0 start, the best in school history, in 2010-11. That team reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history before finishing 34-3.
On Monday, the Aztecs moved up three spots in The Associated Press Top 25, matching the No. 4 ranking from 2010-11. SDSU (19-0, 8-0 Mountain West) is the nation’s last undefeated Division I team.
On Tuesday night, it can equal that 20-0 start if it beats Wyoming at sold-out Viejas Arena, which is back to being as raucous as it was when Leonard was the big star.
Yanni Wetzell, one of three transfers who have brought the Aztecs back to relevance, didn’t watch much college basketball while growing up in Auckland, New Zealand. But he had heard of Leonard and Steve Fisher, who won a national championship as coach of Michigan before reviving a sad-sack SDSU program.
“I knew, even back in New Zealand growing up, that he had played at San Diego State, and the whole Steve Fisher Era, and watching the Fab Five documentary; I’ve watched it a couple of times now,” Wetzell said Monday. “It’s just awesome to be a part of a program that such legends have been through.
“We’re chasing that similar streak, so hopefully we can be talked about in a similar manner,” said Wetzell, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt.
The 20-0 streak in 2010-11 ended with a 71-58 loss at No. 9 BYU, which was led by Jimmer Fredette. SDSU won its next seven games before losing again to BYU, 80-67 at home. SDSU wouldn’t lose again until being defeated by eventual national champion UConn in the Sweet 16.
Wetzell said he’s watched clips from the 2010-11 season.
“They’re kind of popping up now that we’re getting close to that streak, so now you’re seeing them on YouTube,” he said.
His impression? “Defense. Those dudes — physical tools, they were dogs, all over the place. They prided themselves on the defensive end and it often just translated to the offense.”
This SDSU team prides itself on defense, too. It suffocated Nevada during a 17-2 second-half run during a 68-55 win Saturday night. The only Nevada points during that span came when Wetzell accidentally tipped the ball into the Wolf Pack basket.
Because Wetzell and fellow grad transfer KJ Feagin have seen clips of Leonard’s team, they were asked how a theoretical matchup between that team and the current team would go.
Wetzell exhaled and said, “Got to back ourselves.”
Added Feagin: “Got to. It would be a tough one, though, because they just had a lot of length across the board. You had D.J. Gay, Billy White, Tim Shelton, Kawhi, I think Jamaal Franklin was on that team. So you have pros on that team. Hopefully we all can become pros. We don’t know what the future holds for us. But I think I’d have to bet on ourselves right now.”
Leonard is a two-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP. The Aztecs will retire his jersey on Feb. 1.
Asked what the score would be, Feagin laughed and said: “There probably wouldn’t be a lot of scoring. Probably like a low-50s game, double bonus at the 10-minute mark.”
Who would guard Leonard? “Wooooo, I think we’re going to have to throw a couple of bodies at him,” Feagin said. “I think Matt Mitchell gets the start, throw AG (Aguek Arop) at him, get him a little tired. A lot of fouls.”
Third-year coach Brian Dutcher helped mentor Leonard as Fisher’s top assistant in 2010-11.
“It’s fun to compare, but we have to win a game tomorrow in order to kind of catch him in the 20-win streak,” Dutcher said. “So that’s kind of a fun little motivator, to catch a team in Aztecs history that’s been so good. Other than that, the comparisons are for fans and coaches to kind of talk about and laugh about.”
If the Aztecs can get to 21 wins, they’ll have their own identity.
“I think it’s important to get to 20 first,” Dutcher said. “I’ll worry about 21 if we can win tomorrow. We’ll have our challenges tomorrow.”
Dutcher raves about the maturity and experience Wetzell, Feagin and junior transfer Malachi Flynn have brought to the Aztecs.
He knows the players talk about Leonard’s team only when asked about it by the media.
“That’s our job as coaches, to keep them grounded. But at the same time, let them embrace and have fun with it,” Dutcher said. “It’s the fine line. We can’t be sitting there and be a downer on everything that’s happened because we’re micromanaging and keeping them over-focused. They’re a good group. Usually they know what has to be done. That’s what makes it easy to coach them.”
Feagin said the players do try to stay focused, but added: “It just feels great to be a part of something special, knowing that we’ll be a part of a lot of memories of people that are coming to games right now, and around campus and around the San Diego area. I know that I’ll be in a lot of people’s hearts; Yanni will be in a lot of people’s hearts for the rest of their lives. I’m just thankful to be a part of something like this.”