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San Diego State basketball, formerly a sleeping giant, awakens long-dormant passions

The Aztecs are 27-1 and ranked No. 6 heading into Saturday's showdown with No. 7 BYU, a never-before-seen level of success that has inspired never-imagined scenes such as students camping out in sleeping bags to get tickets.

February 25, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Eric Summ, 21, checks his computer for information about the game as he and other San Diego State students camped out overnight in front of Viejas Arena for a place in line to buy tickets to the biggest basketball game in school history on Saturday against Brigham Young.
Eric Summ, 21, checks his computer for information about the game as he and… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — Kids in sleeping bags camped out to buy tickets for a San Diego State basketball game?

They must have been filming "Anchorman II."

Watching action-news reporters doing stand-ups outside Viejas Arena on Thursday seemed a nuttier premise than Ron Burgundy chasing the panda story.

But it was no joke.

Students started camping Tuesday for Saturday's home showdown against Brigham Young, by far the biggest game in program history.

Sabrina Garcia, a freshman psychology major from Brea, sat on a sidewalk midday Thursday wondering if her parents would be proud.

"I did not come here for the sports," she said with a giggle. "But it's a big plus now that I'm here."

Garcia said the game has become a cultural "happening" and not even cold weather or impending rain could make her budge.

"I'm all in at this point," she said.

A punch line for most of the 20th century, San Diego State is 27-1 this season under 12th-year Coach Steve Fisher. The Aztecs are ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press poll. A possible No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament will be on the line in the Mountain West Conference game against No. 7 BYU (26-2).

The next win in the NCAA tournament will be the first for San Diego State, a loser in six previous forays.

The Aztecs are also seeking to avenge their only loss this season, by 13 points at BYU on Jan. 26.

Jimmer Fredette, BYU's superstar guard, scored 43 points that day and San Diego State fans have been waiting impatiently to scream in his face.

The school announced it will not tolerate derogatory T-shirts referring to Fredette's girlfriend — a BYU cheerleader — and even posted around the arena an open letter from Fisher imploring students to be respectful of BYU's religious affiliation.

Members of "The Show," the school's rowdy student section, do plan on dressing in Mormon missionary garb.

"You stay classy, San Diego," is how Burgundy would have put it.

No one in San Diego has seen anything like it.

Thursday's line coiled around Viejas and then, like a cobra's tail, snaked down a sidewalk. Students were waiting for Friday's release of 2,500 tickets, which earned them the right to get back in line for Saturday's 11 a.m. tipoff.

Some dressed in their pajamas. Many worked on laptop computers. One slept in an inflatable boat, "The Explorer 200."

Using the honor system, spots were held so students could attend class and use the rest room.

Some used the time to study. Others did not.

"I'm not doing my homework," said Beau Bearden, a senior journalism major. "I'm just hanging out. I'm too excited. I couldn't sleep Monday night I was so excited to come out here to camp."

Students cheered Thursday every time an Aztecs player passed by the arena.

Brian Carlwell, a senior center, emerged with a push cart and tossed out soft drinks and snacks.

"This line is ridiculous," said Carlwell, a transfer from Illinois. "All to watch us play? It's crazy. You see this when they talk about Duke and North Carolina."

D.J. Gay, a senior guard from Poly High in Sun Valley, provided water bottles on his way to practice.

"Wow," he said. "Look what we created. Every time I walk by I get goose bumps thinking about my freshman year to this present day, and how far this program has come."

Why San Diego State basketball struggled for so many years was a mystery to many, as the school seemed to have all the climate/talent pool/facilities ingredients for success.

Why the Aztecs are successful now is not a mystery. The man responsible is the 65-year-old Fisher, who is 225-150 since arriving in 1999 one season after Fred Trenkle's team finished 4-22.

Fisher coached Michigan to the 1989 national title but was later fired after a booster scandal in which he was never implicated.

He's turned a second chance at San Diego State into his second act, posting seven 20-win seasons.

Fisher, who recruited perhaps the greatest freshman class of all time in Michigan's "Fab Five," is winning this season with five seniors.

This team is the culmination of years of foundation building — and represents Fisher's best shot to get back to the Final Four.

"We're not going to go 27-1 next year," he said Thursday.

He tapped into the Los Angeles area for two of his best players, Gay and NBA-bound forward Kawhi Leonard, from Riverside King High.

Gay chose San Diego State over, among others, USC.

"A lot of people were against it," Gay said of his choice. "People didn't see what I saw. I saw a great opportunity to come here to a program that was just trying to get over the hump."

What are people saying now?

"How do I get down there?" Gay said.

Leonard, averaging 15.2 points and 10.7 rebounds, committed to Fisher knowing little about his past.

"I knew he coached at Michigan, won a national title and had those [Fab Five] players," Leonard said.

Leonard bought into the program having no idea things could end up like this.

"I never imagined lines outside the arena," he said.

Saturday, against BYU, the action moves inside.

San Diego State fans would argue they've been crazy for years and only needed a cause to rally around.

"All these fans are just sleeping giants," Carlwell said as he threw packages of marshmallows and graham crackers to the masses. "They just needed to be awakened. I think we woke them up."

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