After losing four starters, including NBA first-round pick Kawhi Leonard, from last year's 34--3 team that reached the Elite Eight, San Diego State was expected to retreat and rebuild this season. Even coach Steve Fisher had relatively modest expectations. "I thought we would play hard and have a chance to have a good team," he says.
But after going 14--2 in nonconference play and beating then 12th-ranked UNLV at home, as well as New Mexico and Air Force on the road, the Aztecs (18--3, 4--1) are ranked 17th and in the hunt for a second straight Mountain West title. While the Pac-12 continues to struggle (no team received any votes in last week's poll), San Diego State is one of three California teams poised to make noise in the NCAAs.
Aside from its fierce defense, Fisher's team barely resembles last year's group of rangy rebound hounds. The Aztecs start four guards, including 6'3" junior Chase Tapley, who leads the league in scoring (16.1 ppg), field goal percentage (48.4) and steals (2.1). Pointman Xavier Thames, a 6'3" sophomore who averages 11.0 points and 4.9 assists, transferred from Washington State and has seamlessly filled the void left by four-year starter D.J. Gay.
These Aztecs attack off the dribble more than they throw into the post, and they aren't as strong on the offensive glass as was last year's group. "What's similar is, this team truly believes it will win," says Fisher, a national coach of the year candidate. "And we have won close games. That's the secret for us so far."
After just missing the NCAA tournament last season, both Long Beach State and Saint Mary's have the talent, experience and motivation to be dangerous in March
Long Beach State(16--6, 9--0 Big West)
The 49ers turned heads last fall with wins over then No. 9 Pitt and then No. 14 Xavier, two of seven foes who were ranked at some point this season. Its quartet of senior starters, including 5'10" point guard Casper Ware—the Big West's top defensive and overall player last year—have all left marks on the school record books, but their legacy won't be complete without the program's first trip to the NCAAs since 2007. "We've gotten better every year, and now we're in the best mental position we've been in," says coach Dan Monson. "We trust each other, we fight back together. So hopefully, this is our year."
SAINT MARY'S(21--2, 10--0 West Coast)
Blowouts have been the norm for the No. 18 Gaels, who thumped conference foes BYU (98--82 on Dec. 29) and Gonzaga (83--62 on Jan. 12). Led by junior point guard Matthew Dellavedova, an Aussie whose 6.4 assists a game ranks ninth in the country, and 6'6" senior forward Rob Jones, who averages a double double (14.3 ppg and 10.8 rpg), the team boasts one of the nation's most efficient offenses, making assists on 63% of its baskets while rarely turning the ball over. (Its 16.6 apg is 16th in the country, and its 1.38 assist-to-turnover ratio is 10th.) With that unselfishness and an improved defense, Saint Mary's has the tools to end Gonzaga's run of 11 straight conference titles.
KENT C. HORNER/GETTY IMAGES (TAPLEY)
CHASE IS ON A role player last season, the 6'3" guard is leading the Aztecs' fast-paced attack, on offense and defense.
EUGENE TANNER/AP (WARE)
CARY EDMONDSON/US PRESSWIRE (DELLAVEDOVA)