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San Diego State’s success begins, ends with defense

HOUSTON — San Diego State is on this magical basketball stage, in this historic moment, because it rarely allows opponents to shoot and score at their usual clip.

Which can allow you to climb the most daunting of mountains.

In this improbable case, all the way to a Final Four.

You’ve heard about the defense. Probably seen it during Mountain West play or this March run. It’s elite.

But it isn’t a strategy born in recent times. As bad as the Aztecs were when Steve Fisher assumed control of the program in 1999 — and they were beyond awful — the eye has always been aimed at one end of the court. Fisher made sure of it, even in the most dreadful of times.

San Diego State will now test its defensive prowess against Florida Atlantic in one national semifinal Saturday at NRG Stadium.

Simple stuff

San Diego State assistant coach Dave Velasquez said it best: You’re not coming out of a game if you miss a shot for the Aztecs. You are coming out if you’re supposed to go over a ball screen, instead go under it and the other guy hits a 3.

“It’s that simple,” said Velasquez, who oversees the team’s defense. “It’s pretty black and white for us. You either did what you’re supposed to or you didn’t. They know we can always win with defense. Defense travels.”

Nothing has changed. Kids like to score, to shoot, to embrace the modern-aged game of 3 after 3 after 3. It’s what makes the television highlights. What sells.

It takes a different sort to think defense first. To really buy into a concept that stopping others is just as important as compiling points. To think of closeouts and rebounds and cutting off driving lanes and covering for a teammate’s mistake and taking a charge and communicating as being just as sexy as a breakaway dunk.

San Diego State does daily defensive drills now under coach Brian Dutcher that they did under Fisher, who retired six years ago. The same ones. Over and over and over.

Velasquez: Repetition breeds consistency. It creates muscle memory.

“It’s just part of our culture,” said senior guard Adam Seiko. “I wanted to be here because I took defense seriously and I saw how the Kawhi (Leonard) teams defended. It’s sometimes hard to remain so consistent. A lot of guys in college play hard but are not smart.

“We just know the tendencies of other teams. We know what each guy does. We have a high basketball IQ along with playing really hard.”

It takes a village. Or, in this case, seven seniors among nine upperclassmen. There might not be an NBA player on San Diego State’s roster. It’s more about that time-honored theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Limiting opponents

Some ridiculous numbers: San Diego State has limited four NCAA opponent to 57 points a game. Alabama, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, shot just 3-of-27 on 3s against the Aztecs in the Sweet 16. Creighton was 2-of-27 in the Elite Eight.

I remember when Velasquez was a student manager for the Aztecs more than two decades ago. Nobody within the program other than Dutcher better understands how defense has created so much winning.

We’ll see how the Aztecs score in the massive structure that is NRG, where deep backgrounds can test even the most proficient of shooters. San Diego State doesn’t have many of them. It can struggle on offense as much or more than it frustrates teams at the other end.

“There is a reason Coach Dutcher has the highest winning percentage in the country (.86.2 the last four years) during February,” Velasquez said. “Because when that time comes around, that form and technique and defense has made for great habits for our guys.

“Coach Fisher saw all this from the start.”

Saw what it took to be successful.

To have now climbed the most daunting of mountains.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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