Aztecs Prove Their Worth

San Diego State took the at-large route to return to the NCAA tournament but that was just fine with the Aztecs.

San Diego State was supposed to be in rebuilding mode this season after losing four starters off a school-best 34-3 squad but the Aztecs are back in the tournament and face 11th-seeded North Carolina State (22-12) in Columbus, Ohio on March 16.

The Aztecs (26-7) drew a sixth seed in the Midwest region and landed an at-large bid for the first time in program history. This is San Diego State's fifth NCAA trip under coach Steve Fisher.

Now the task is seeing how the Aztecs stack up against an Atlantic Coast Conference program like North Carolina State.

What is clear is San Diego State can no longer sneak up on opponents.

"We're a whole new team, a team with a different outlook and people looking at us differently," senior center Tim Shelton said. "A lot of people didn't think we'd be here so it goes to show that we've worked hard and we deserve to be here."

The Aztecs shared the regular-season crown with New Mexico and then lost to the Lobos in the Mountain West tournament title game.

San Diego State was a question mark entering the campaign after the loss of star forward Kawhi Leonard to the NBA and three other starters but sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin emerged as a go-to player and sophomore transfer Xavier Thames filled the point guard hole.

Now the Aztecs are looking to see if they can do some damage in the NCAA tournament.

Sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin was named Mountain West Player of the Year and Steve Fisher was named Coach of the Year. Franklin is the first San Diego State player since Brandon Heath in 2006 to win the top player honor while Fisher won the coaching award for the second straight season. Franklin was a team all-conference choice while junior guard Chase Tapley was a second-team selection. Senior center Tim Shelton was chosen to the league's all-defensive team.

-- San Diego State had never won any NCAA tournament games prior to advancing to the Sweet 16 last season so the pressure is off in that regard. The Aztecs are in the tournament for the third straight season and eighth time in school history. North Carolina State is making its 23rd trip to the NCAA tournament but its first since 2006.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The closer to home, the better served you are. In a perfect world, we would have been in Portland or Albuquerque, but I'm glad we don't have to go all the way out east, all the way to Pittsburgh and play there." -- San Diego State coach Steve Fisher on the issue of location in the NCAA tournament.

San Diego State doesn't have a lot of depth or size and often goes with a four-guard lineup with multipurpose threat Jamaal Franklin moving interchangeably between the post and the wing. Franklin leads the team in rebounding (7.9) and center Tim Shelton is a top-flight defender. Point guard Xavier Thames is a solid point guard and guard Chase Tapley is a strong scorer. Guard James Rahon is a streaky outside shooter. Garrett Green and DeShawn Stephens provide frontcourt depth.

FUTURES WATCH: Utah transfer J.J. O'Brien joins the mix and will be an immediate starter after having a solid freshman campaign for the Utes. O'Brien is the type of player who will blend in nice with the returning guard-heavy lineup. The Aztecs heavily recruited him out of high school so it was an easy decision for O'Brien to choose San Diego State upon leaving Utah.

REGULAR SEASON REVIEW: San Diego State had a relatively soft nonconference schedule while building a 14-2 record. The losses were to Baylor and Creighton with the most impressive wins coming against Long Beach State and California. The Aztecs started the Mountain West slate with four consecutive wins before suffering a rough patch of four losses in six games. The Aztecs rebounded to share the regular-season title with New Mexico.

-- Sophomore G Jamaal Franklin hit a dramatic last-second game-winning shot in a conference-tournament victory over Boise State en route to being a member of the all-tournament team.

-- Junior G Chase Tapley scored 62 points in three Mountain West tournament games while earning all-tournament recognition. He ranks 20th in school history with 1,060 points.

-- Sophomore PG Xavier Thames shot 90.7 percent from the free throw line during Mountain West conference play.

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