SAN DIEGO — Of all the defeats last season, and there were a school-record 25, none was more embarrassing to the San Diego State basketball team than its 87-81 loss to cross-city rival United States International.
USIU had not beaten the Aztecs since 1965 and had been among the least successful basketball programs in the country since it made the jump to NCAA Division I in 1981.
USIU players doused Coach Gary Zarecky with water in a spirited postgame celebration.
"Beating San Diego State was the highlight of our program," said Zarecky, the third-year USIU coach. "We haven't had a bigger win."
Tonight at 7:35 in the San Diego Sports Arena, the teams will play again. And, in a unique role reversal, Zarecky is talking confidently, and Jim Brandenburg, SDSU's first-year coach, is soft-pedaling the Aztecs' chances.
"We'll probably be the underdog in this game," Brandenburg said earlier this week. "We're disorganized and struggling."
The Aztecs (2-3) committed 49 turnovers and shot only 41.5% last weekend in losing to Arizona State and Tulsa in the Kactus tournament in Tempe, Ariz. The Gulls also are 2-3 but are coming off a split of a four-game trip in which they won a game played outside San Diego for the first time since they joined Division I.
"In the past, if USIU was 0-20 and San Diego State was 2-and-whatever, USIU was always the 30-point underdog," Zarecky said.
That has changed. But it is as much a reflection of how SDSU has fallen as it is a sign of the improvement at USIU.
Since Brandenburg took over for Smokey Gaines in March, the early going has been difficult. The Aztecs have only 10 players, just three of whom are returning lettermen.
The USIU game is the start of a six-game home stand for the Aztecs. They also will play host to the University of San Diego Dec. 19, Dartmouth Dec. 21, Rhode Island Dec. 23 and the four-team Holiday Bowl tournament Dec. 27-28, in which the Aztecs will play Bucknell in the first round.
For those unfamiliar with East Coast basketball, that might sound like a not-so-difficult stretch. But Dartmouth is 2-0; Rhode Island is 4-0 and has beaten Virginia; and Bucknell (3-2) was in the NCAA tournament last season.
"We're 2-3, and realistically, we're not that far off our team goals at this point in our season," Brandenburg said. "It's important in the next six games to establish ourselves. We're struggling as a basketball team. Everyone understands that, even our players. The only thing that will save is to have some success."
Aztec Notes Caldin Rogers will make his second start, taking over for senior Juan Espinoza at small forward, San Diego State Coach Jim Brandenburg said. Rogers had a team season-high 10 rebounds against Tulsa. . . . Rade Milutonivic, a native of Yugoslavia, has replaced senior Dexter Magee at forward, United States International Coach Gary Zarecky said. But Goren Petrovic, Milutonivic's countryman, will be out three weeks because of separated shoulder, Zarecky said. . . . The Gulls are led by senior guard Russ Heicke (23.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game). Sophomore guard Tony Ross, with a 47.6 shooting percentage, is averaging 17.8 points for the Aztecs.