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February 3, 2011MORE HOOPS: KC King | Whispers column | Ask the experts
Mountain West Conference teams aren't accustomed to hosting conference games in February against teams with a No. 6 ranking and one-loss records. Yet, there was San Diego State heading into Colorado State on Wednesday night, in front of a national cable television audience, as one of the best teams in the country.
The Aztecs left Fort Collins, Colo., with their top 10 ranking intact and a 22-1 record after senior D.J. Gay knocked down a game-winning jumper with just seconds left on the clock.
Gay is emblematic of the Aztecs' roster, one filled with players from varied backgrounds, passed over by schools from BCS conferences and coming together to form one of the nation's top teams.
There is no magic formula the Aztecs followed in landing the pieces for this impressive run, according to assistant coach Justin Hutson, SDSU's director of recruiting.
"There's no secret," Hutson told Rivals.com. "We just try to get good players. It's really very simple. We have a mix of high school recruits, junior college players and transfers. We just try to find good players wherever they are. But it's not like we are all about junior college players and transfers. We have four starters who came to us right out of high school.
"We look at our needs for the upcoming year, then start on the West Coast and see who is good enough."
Out of the other four main contributors, San Diego product Malcolm Thomas, who was a junior college transfer, averages 11.3 points per game and is the second-leading rebounder behind Leonard. James Rahon, a transfer from Santa Clara, is averaging 7.6 points per game. Brian Carlwell is the only high-major transfer, coming from Illinois, and he only averages 3.9 points in just 10 minutes per game. Tim Shelton is the only other player averaging more than 10 minutes per game, and he came to San Diego State out of high school.
Bottom line is that the program is built upon lightly recruited high school prospects with some transfers sprinkled in.
Gray received little-to-no recruiting attention from the Pac-10. White and Tapley had minimal attention from the Pac-10 and even Leonard, who was ranked a top 50 prospect by Rivals.com, was just a secondary target for Pac-10 schools.
So how was the San Diego State coaching staff able to convince these prospects that they can achieve major success in the Mountain West Conference?
"We start with Coach (Steve) Fisher and his past success and who he is as a person," Hutson said. "He has a history of putting players in the NBA. We have beautiful facilities and great fan support. Our weight room is top-notch, and we have great academic help. And then we get to the university. It is the second-most applied to school in the country."
Fisher, who won a national championship as Michigan's coach in 1989 and coached the Fab Five to a pair of Final Fours, has achieved a status on par with any Pac-10 school during his 12-year tenure with the Aztecs. He's secured his sixth straight 20-win season at SDSU, while Pac-10 hoops have taken a step back the past couple of years.
And the grassroots basketball community on the West Coast has taken notice.
Dinos Trigonis, editor of the scouting report Fullcourt Press and coach of the Belmont Shores travel team, attests to the prominence of both SDSU's basketball program and Fisher.
"Steve Fisher has steadily built San Diego State into a West Coast power - blending a nice mix of high-major transfers, talented jucos and under-the-radar high school prospects to build a championship contender," he said. "Another key to this success has been the patience exhibited by both San Diego State's administration after the hire of Fisher over a decade ago."
Despite the success, it hasn't significantly changed the dynamics of SDSU's recruiting.
"It's hard to see how tangible an effect it has on recruiting," Hutson said. "We definitely get more recognition. We get more calls now. But none of this means we are going to get guys. It helps you get in the door, but it doesn't close any deals. Just because you have recognition, doesn't mean you'll get players."
Even with the exposure this season is bringing to the program, it is doubtful that it will translate into a highly recognized 2011 recruiting class.
The Aztecs have already lost a tough recruiting battle to UCLA for San Diego high school star Norman Powell, who is the No. 59 prospect in the Rivals150. Powell could have been the next version of Leonard. Instead, he will play in the new Pac-12 and SDSU has to keep turning up stones.
"As you know, most of the top guys in the 2011 class are committed," Hutson said. "So having a great season this year can pretty much just help us with transfers for next year."
The Aztecs have already signed forward of Santa Monica Junior College and forward Kevin Young, who is not playing competitive basketball this season but played the previous two years at Loyola Marymount.
Washington State transfer Xavier Thames is also with the team this year and will become eligible next year.
So there are reinforcements on the way, and don't be surprised if the SDSU coaching staff finds an under-recruited high school prospect or two who will become difference-makers for the program down the road.