BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Steve Fisher and San Diego State basketball have made the long, arduous journey from the depths of college basketball.
Now in his seventh year at San Diego State, Fisher's tale is a well-known one to Big Ten basketball fans. A one-time assistant to former Michigan Coach Bill Frieder, Fisher took over the 1989 team before the start of the postseason and guided the Glen Rice-led Wolverines to six straight wins and the NCAA Championship.
He'd go on to spend eight-plus seasons in Ann Arbor, leading Michigan to seven NCAA tourney berths and three appearances in the Final Four. He put together the fabled "Fab Five" recruiting class in 1991, a group that featured Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. That quintet earned spots in the NCAA Final Four in both 1992 and 1993, and Fisher's Michigan teams went a combined 20-6 in its seven NCAA appearances.
But Fisher's Michigan tenure ended in scandal. In in-house an NCAA investigation in the late 1990s uncovered recruiting violations that led to probation for the Wolverine program and to Fisher's dismissal Oct. 10, 1997. Michigan booster Ed Martin was the center of the scandal, as it was determined Martin gave more than $600,000 to former Michigan players Louis Bullock, Robert Traylor, Chris Webber and Maurice Taylor over a series of years. It was a scandal that NCAA Infractions Committee chair Tom Yeager called, "one of the most egregious violations of NCAA laws in the history of the (NCAA) organization."
While Fisher was dismissed in 1997 for his relationship with Martin, it was investigation that wouldn't go away. The matter was dragged through the federal courts, the newspapers and in front of the NCAA, and it was finally resolved in 2003. Michigan was forced to sit out of the 2003 and 2004 NCAA Tournaments, forfeit 113 victories from the 1990s, and repay the NCAA nearly $500,000 for money received for its Final Four berths. In addition, Michigan was forced to remove its 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners, its 1997 NIT Championship banner, and its 1998 Big Ten Tournament championship banner.
After a one-year stint in the NBA as an assistant coach, Fisher resurfaced at San Diego State. He inherited a team that had gone just 4-22 the season before. His first team went just 5-23, but the tide turned soon afterwards. The Aztecs went 14-14 in 2001, and in 2002 compiled a 21-12 mark and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Fisher is back in the NCAAs this season for the second time at San Diego State and the ninth time overall. His team features a trio of big names in Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Brandon Heath, MWC rebounding leader Marcus Slaughter, and Florida transfer Mohamed Abukar.
Slaughter and Abukar give Fisher a pair of long, athletic front line players. The 6-9, 220-pound Slaughter averages 16.6 points and 11.0 rebounds, while the 6-10, 216-pound Abukar averaged 13.8 points and 4.5 boards per game. Abukar transferred from Florida in December 2004, and has been eligible since the start of the second semester. He's started 20 of the 21 games he's played in.
Heath, meanwhile, averaged 18.5 points per game and is among the national leaders with 95 3-pointers. The 6-4 Heath shot better than 41 percent from behind the 3-point arc as well.
That trio has Fisher believing this is his best team yet with the Aztecs.
"No disrespect to the 2002 team, but we've got a better team," Fisher said. "We got hot at the right time."
Fisher also likes the fact his team is playing at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. The home of the Utah Utes, San Diego State knocked off the Utes 72-67 there earlier this season.
That's a lot better situation than in 2002, when San Diego State had to travel to Chicago to play Illinois in front of a partisan crowd.
"We were put at a tremendous disadvantage in 2002 when we were shipped to Chicago to play Illinois," Fisher said. "Illinois took a two-hour bus ride. They had 10,000 people, at least, and we had maybe 500 or 1,000. It was a huge advantage.
"I heard they were the first four [seeded] team and we were the last 13 [seeded] team. Three or four of those guys [from that Illinois team] are in the NBA now. I think it is a whole different ballgame this year. Illinois was a lot better than we were and it proved it. We tried to say how could we hide some things from Illinois? I think if we just get ready and play, we will have a chance to win on Thursday. That makes me feel good."
San Diego State's players are equally excited and optimistic about their chances against the sixth-seeded Hoosiers.
"The sky's the limit, there's no cap on the sky," said backup forward Trimaine Davis, who played on the 2002 team. "That's what we're shooting for. We made it to this tournament to win games. The first time we got here (in 2002), it was a great accomplishment…I've been here and I know what happened that first time, and I don't want to let what happened the first time to happen again. It's great that history repeated itself for us to get to this point, but it's time to take it another step."
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