HOUSTON – Rumblings of the San Diego State Aztecs moving to the Pac-12 grew louder Monday night, even after the Aztecs lost in the men’s basketball national championship game.
The chatter began to escalate roughly three weeks ago when San Diego State Athletic Director John David Wicker told KFMB-TV in San Diego that a new Pac-12 television deal is all but done when he was asked if an Aztecs move to the conference was imminent.
“I think it will happen in the next two weeks,” Wicker told the outlet. “Then we’ll see what happens.”
Since that report, the Aztecs advanced through the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, reaching the national championship game by defeating Florida Atlantic 72-71 on Lamont Butler’s buzzer-beater.
Although the end result in the championship matchup was a 79-56 rout at the hands of the UConn Huskies, San Diego State came away with a different kind of victory: recognition.
“We have a national perception now,” said Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher. “I think everybody out west has always known we’ve been good, but now that we’re playing on the biggest stage and we’re winning on the biggest stage, I think a lot like when Gonzaga made that step, they did it on a national stage.
“That’s how they gained their respect, and hopefully this national stage will give us national respect.”
It couldn’t have hurt SDSU’s status in the eyes of the Pac-12, either.
The consistency and strength of San Diego State’s football and basketball programs looks to be a selling point for a conference move, especially with UCLA and USC moving to the Big Ten Conference in 2024.
The Aztecs (32-7) strengthened their case for Pac-12 entry with this year’s championship run, but the program’s campaign started long before this season. In basketball, the men’s team has made the NCAA tournament 10 times in the last 13 years while winning the Mountain West Conference championship five times in that span.
During the 2019-20 season, San Diego State posted a 30-2 record and spent five weeks in the top five of the Associated Press national rankings. Many experts believed the Aztecs had a legitimate shot to win the title but the season came to an abrupt end before the tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Past successes would suggest the school’s athletic program has outgrown the Mountain West. Not Dutcher, who credits the conference for being one of the toughest in the country.
“This conference is hard. It’s toughened us up to go to places we have to play; in Laramie, Logan, Albuquerque, (Las) Vegas, Colorado State, playing at altitude. A tough travel league and nothing easy to get to,” Dutcher said. “I think we had an 8-2 road record this year. We’ve been battle-tested on the road, and I think it served us well playing in this tournament.”
Dutcher isn’t wrong. Four Mountain West teams made the NCAA tournament this year, with Nevada taking the lowest seed at No. 11. The Pac-12 also sent four teams to the tournament, with Arizona State playing Nevada in a First Four game, also as an 11 seed.
San Diego State’s dominance was on full display behind a 22-1 record this season when allowing 65 points or fewer. The Aztecs only allowed two teams to score more than 65 points this season: Florida Atlantic and UConn in the Final Four.
Despite the swirling rumors, Dutcher has no concern about where his team might end up playing. After the loss, he spent more time talking about the culture the Aztecs have built.
“I’m proud of our guys,” he said. “These guys have given me everything they had. Six years, five years, five years, five years. This is what all these guys are all about. It’s about college athletics.
“They’re good people, they’re good students and they’re really good players. We can feel good about the things we did.”
The Aztecs were the first non-Power-5 school to make the championship game since Larry Bird led Indiana State to the final against Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team in 1979.
Still, Dutcher recognizes the elite facets of San Diego State and appreciates what a potential conference change could do for the university.
“It’s not just our athletic program,” he said. “Our university is incredible. Everything about San Diego State is at the highest level you can get to, academically, socially, athletically.”
“Everything we’re about is first-class, and so if another conference was interested in us, I would not be surprised.”