By Jeff Praught
The Aztecs men’s basketball program has abandoned its seat at the kiddies’ table to join the national ranks, and America is taking notice.
SDSU qualified for last year’s NCAA tournament, nearly upending eventual Sweet 16 contender Tennessee in the opening round. With all of its starters returning this season, the Aztecs had high hopes and were recognized with the first national ranking in the 90-year history of the program, opening the season ranked 25th.
With senior D .J. Gay leading the point and sophomore Kawhi Leonard terrorizing opponents with his NBA-like talents, the Aztecs pulled off 20 wins to start the season, including a program-changing victory Nov. 16 at then-No. 12 Gonzaga. When you break one of the nation’s longest home court winning streaks against a national power, you know you’re on to something.
As SDSU kept winning, their seat in the national polls kept rising, as they were elevated to as high as fourth, before falling in a tight contest at then-No. 9 BYU. Basketball pundits were quick to recognize SDSU’s talented squad, but it took the locals and the national audience a little while to get on the red-and-black bandwagon. The win at Gonzaga was gratifying, but it wasn’t until the Aztecs knocked off nemesis St. Mary’s at home and Cal on the road that fans began packing Viejas.
And pack the arena they have. By January, every remaining game on the home slate had been sold out. Capacity crowds of 12,414 have come not only to see the best basketball ever played here, but also to witness the hysteria that is the student section. Nicknamed “The Show,” the section has grown to more than 4,000 members, many of whom camp out before games to get tickets.
The Show established itself several years ago when students began bringing large cardboard cut-out heads of celebrities and newsmakers-often those who made headlines for embarrassing gaffs. From Donna Frye to Nick Nolte’s prison mug shot, students hold up these heads to distract opponents shooting secondhalf free throws in their direction.
SDSU has cemented its arrival on the national stage, but ultimately will be judged by what they do in the NCAA Tournament. And with the Aztecs boasting as much talent as any team in the nation, there is no reason the party on Montezuma Mesa shouldn’t continue through April 4 and the National Championship Game in Houston.