One month ago, Trey Kell was a tragic story. The San Diego native was a key part of a vaunted recruiting class that disappointed, producing diminishing returns every single season. The tragedy was capped with a cruel senior campaign that saw him injured and sick and injured again.
Today, the first-year head coach and the hometown senior capped off one of the most stirring comeback stories in San Diego State sports history, beating the New Mexico Lobos in an excruciating-thrilling-horrible-wonderful 82-75 come-from-behind victory in the Mountain West Tournament title game in Vegas. The Aztecs will go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons thanks to an improbable nine-game winning streak that had the kind of redemption arcs you only see in sports movies where the main character is a golden retriever or a field goal kicking mule.
Back when things looked bleak for San Diego State men’s basketball, I would often try to break up all the bitter text in my grim recaps with a few visual aids. One of my favorite crutches was the win probability chart, because, hey, why expend brainpower writing angry words about another brutal loss when you can let a line graph tell the grim tale for you.
Anyway, here is what those charts looked like back then.
Say, would you like to see the win probability chart for the Aztecs’ Mountain West Conference semifinal game against the University of Nevada-Reno on Thursday night?
The Brian Dutcher era at San Diego State started with talk of surrendering defense to facilitate scoring, and that talk mostly came to fruition. This year we’ve seen a faster tempo on offense, running in transition and jacking 3-pointers with impunity. At times it has been beautiful and thrilling. At others — all of late January and early February, for instance — it has been a galling disaster.
In the first round of the Mountain West Conference Tournament, we saw our Aztecs revert to a more familiar form. The Aztecs didn’t beat Fresno State on Thursday afternoon with transition buckets or long range marksmanship or anything even vaguely aesthetically pleasing. Instead, as Steve Fisher looked on approvingly from the stands, they brought out their pool cues and tire irons to beat Fresno back onto their team bus.
This game — a 64-52 final — was physical, offensively challenged and generally ugly as sin. If this was the first college basketball game I had ever watched, it might have been enough to steer me away from ever watching another one. But it was vintage SDSU.
I’ve muttered under my breath about Kameron Rooks at times this season. I’ve yelled at my TV for him to be removed from games. I’ve even poked a little good-natured fun at him on the popular website Twitter dot com. Chances are you have done these things, too.
It’s been a pretty rough year for the graduate transfer from Cal. He’s averaging just two points per game, and with the emergence of Jalen McDaniels and Nolan Narain, he has found himself increasingly garnering the dreaded DNP-coach’s decision.
I’ve always felt a little bad about metaphorically dunking on Rooks, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he’s unpaid labor who doesn’t owe us shit. For another … well … it’s not like he doesn’t want to be more productive. Being the guy on a popular basketball team who everybody grumbles about has to kind of suck, right?
Rooks is, to use some absolutely loathsome sports-speak, what he is. He’s a 7-foot-1 Pac-12 recruit who looks like he should be better but just … isn’t. And even though it’s not his fault, it makes us angry! We think basketball is supposed to be easy when you’re that crazy tall, and we dismiss what freakish athleticism you need to be agile and nimble at that size.
All of this made Rooks’ glorious game of redemption tonight so damn satisfying.
The lifting of Malik Pope’s quasi-suspension on Tuesday probably did not change a lot in the grand scheme of things. The San Diego State men’s basketball team is still a long shot to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament (though certainly not as hopeless a long shot as before). It remains out of NCAA at-large contention. It probably isn’t going to make the NIT field, either.
But Brian Dutcher’s decision to reinstate Pope after the conclusion of the program’s internal investigation into the star senior’s borrowing habits did this much: It breathed needed life into Viejas Arena and created a fun, memorable Tuesday night in late February.
Self-help guru Tony Robbins said — in an ad I saw during the Olympics — “Progress is happiness.” That’s really the key to the three-game win streak the San Diego State men’s basketball team is riding. After a sloppy first half the Aztecs tuned in, turned on and dropped a 67-56 defeat on Air Force in Colorado Springs. Dwell in bliss.
SDSU is healthy, playing with energy, defending hard, throwing alley-oop lobs and generally bossing their mediocre conference opponents as the gods intended. From their recent depths of despair it’s real progress, a promising path to happiness. Robbins, Ram Dass and James Naismith himself would be proud. I’m ready to walk across hot coals for these guys.
There are two ways to look at what transpired Saturday afternoon at Viejas Arena, where the San Diego State men’s basketball team crushed UNLV 94-56 in what felt like a November paycheck game against a Southland Conference team that starts a 6-foot-5 power forward wearing a headband and goggles.
On one hand, you’d be forgiven if you came away a little bitter.
Where the hell has this been? That aggressive defense, that commitment to doing something on offense besides jacking threes, that perfect use of the bench. If SDSU stated playing like that a couple of months ago we’d be talking about NCAA Tournament seeding rather than the thrilling quest to avoid the conference tournament play-in round.
On the other hand, LOLOLOLOL eat it UNLV.
The Aztecs just rained merciless destruction on one of our most hated rivals, delivering the biggest beating ever in this series. Keep in mind, that spans 69 games and includes several seasons in the ’90s when SDSU was seriously putrid. The Rebels are probably hitchhiking back to Vegas right now while Malik Pope joyrides their team bus through Pacific Beach. At least I hope so.
Yeah, I’m feeling like going with option No. 2 here. Today was awesome, so I say let’s sit back, relax and enjoy the following video of SDSU beating UNLV with a pillowcase full of doorknobs, metaphorically. Mostly metaphorically.