HOUSTON – A two-year crash course about the Arizona men’s basketball program made San Diego State assistant coach JayDee Luster a prime candidate for his current position.
And he has Xavier coach Sean Miller to thank for it.
“I tell people all the time, working for Sean Miller at the University of Arizona, I got a Ph.D. in basketball,” Luster said. “Everywhere I went after that, I feel like I’ve been prepared because of my experience at Arizona.”
That two-year education as a graduate assistant has helped Luster land with the Aztecs in Monday’s championship game of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. SDSU takes on Connecticut at NRG Stadium in Houston.
His experience at Arizona, from 2012 to 2014, gave Luster an up-close look at what it takes to go on a deep tournament run. After all, the Wildcats made the tournament both years he was there.
“I think it helps prepare you for situations like this,” he said. “When I was at Arizona, we made it to an Elite Eight. So, we (SDSU) got there this year, I had experience being in the Elite Eight. My first tournament, we (Arizona) made it to the Sweet 16 and lost to Ohio State. That was my experience of being in a tournament.
“Once I got here this year, I told myself, ‘I’ve been here before.’ I was used to the police escorts, long media hours, all those kinds of things.”
In his time with the Wildcats, Luster grew an appetite for winning.
During the 2013-14 season, the Wildcats had a 27-8 record and secured the sixth seed in the West Region. The next season, the Wildcats reached the nation’s No. 1 ranking for eight weeks. In that season, which would be his final one at Arizona, he helped the Wildcats win the 2014 Pac-12 Conference regular-season championship, earn a No. 1 seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament and go on that Elite Eight run before Arizona lost by a point to Wisconsin, the No. 2 seed.
Before Luster went back to his hometown of San Diego to be an assistant coach, there was some nostalgia for him but not in the usual way. Luster was an accomplished player in his own right.
At Hoover High School in San Diego, he was a legitimate two-way player and posted the school record for most assists (857) and steals (559). In his four years with the Cardinal, he averaged 19.5 points, 8.8 assists, 5.8 steals and 4.3 rebounds while leading the school to its first CIF San Diego Championship in 44 years.
He went on to play at New Mexico State, helping the Aggies win a regular-season WAC title in 2008. Luster transferred to the University of Wyoming the next year and sat out the 2008-09 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
In 2010, his moment arrived. Wyoming was playing SDSU and Luster hit a 3-point shot with 4.9 seconds remaining to give the Cowboys the lead in a game they eventually won. He approached the SDSU bench after the shot and chided the Aztecs that they should have recruited him.
Eleven years later, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher still remembered the shot when he hired Luster.
“You’re lucky I hired you, JayDee, after all that crap you talked,” Dutcher said, joking.
Dutcher said Luster brings a leadership element to the hardwood. Luster was also named the team captain all three years he played at Wyoming, solidifying his understanding of leadership.
He has demonstrated that trait on the recruiting side, too, as was evident when the Aztecs lured Phoenix native Elijah Saunders to the program. The freshman forward was in limbo due to a 2020 graduation and working with the NCAA COVID-19 rules. Luckily for the player, Saunders visited the campus and immediately took away how relatable Luster is to players.
“It was great. I mean, when I met him on my visit here, he was one of my favorite coaches, just, the way he gets along with his players is great,” Saunders said. “He’s such a good recruiter.”
Getting Saunders in the door was a tough task for Luster. Saunders had offers from Miami Ohio, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. However, he saw the vision of Dutcher and the Aztecs’ resolve to win an NCAA championship. The Aztecs were 30-2 in the 2019-20 season and considered one of the favorites to win it all only to have the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tournament.
That relatability with players is a big part of what Saunders cherishes most about the Luster. Before the Aztecs played Alabama, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, Luster delivered a pregame speech that left a lasting impression with Saunders.
“I remember the Alabama game,” Saunders said. “He gave us a great speech about how it’s embracing the moment and people dream of this. He’s just a great motivator.”
Luster recalled the speech he gave to his team, and it was a passionate one.
“Nobody’s picking us to win, nobody’s picking us to win. But the people here believe we can win and we’ve prepared for this moment,” Luster told the Aztecs before they took the court against the Crimson Tide. “We went to Maui. We played the ninth hardest schedule in the country, like we’re a good f——– team. Now go out here and show the world.”
Dutcher heard that speech and understands that his assistant knows how to handle the big moment. The sixth-year head coach still remembers Luster as the player who hit the game-winning shot, 13 years earlier.
“That shows the value he brought to the floor. He hit two threes on us in that game in Laramie,” Dutcher said. “We ducked under a ball screen, he made it, and we ducked a second time, he made it again.”
Luster’s outlook of the game is still not far removed from a player’s perspective and he uses that to relate to the players, especially in moments like their semifinal game against Florida Atlantic.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I played, so I can still put myself in their shoes,” Luster said. “Big games like last night, I understand it. The first four or five minutes you’re probably nervous. So when things are happening throughout those five, six minutes, I’m like, ‘Let’s just get through these nerves.’”
The underdog mentality of the Aztecs is something they strive to keep against Connecticut. And although the nerves may hit in the National Championship game against the Huskies, Luster echoed the same sentiment to his team.
“We can’t overreact with turnovers, can’t overreact with little things in the beginning because turnovers, it’s the nerves,” he said. “So once those nerves get out, and it’s just like football players. Football players talk about being nervous and they get that first hit. Once they get that first hit, it’s like ‘OK, I’m good.’
“You kind of have to go through the first couple of minutes before you settle in. And every game, once we’ve settled in, we’ve been pretty good.”
Despite the friendly banter they still share, Dutcher knew the guy with a basketball “Ph. D.” from Arizona was the right guy for the job.
“Obviously, we value JayDee if I let him talk all that crap to me and still hired him,” Dutcher said.