Gonzaga remained No. 1 in the AP rankings this week, a rare sense of stability for the poll during the 2019-20 season. But in the ever-changing NET rankings, San Diego State is currently on top.
At 13-0, the Aztecs are one of two undefeated teams remaining in Division I college basketball, ranked in consecutive weeks by the Associated Press for the first time since Dec. 2014 and off to their best start since rattling off 20 straight wins during the 2010-11 campaign.
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Understandably, leading a standing or poll in college basketball places a target on any team. SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher remembers when a chance to beat the Aztecs was comparable to a bullseye for opponents.
"There was a time Aztec basketball — if there was a red out, green out black out— whatever it was, it was against us," Dutcher told Andy Katz on the latest edition of the March Madness 365 podcast.
That mindset was embraced during Steve Fisher's — Dutcher's predecessor — tenure. It was part of the culture he installed over 18 seasons. Dutcher, now in his third year at the helm, emphasized the importance of maintaining the principles his successor built the program on.
To carry out a vision that originates from more than two decades ago, Dutcher's team needed some experience.
"Last year at this time we had five freshman and three sophomores. I just knew that I wanted to get older. We took two fifth-year seniors. We had a fourth-year junior, Malachi Flynn, sitting. So we got older this year and I think it’s paid off for us," Dutcher said.
Early in the season, the Aztecs rallied from a nine-point hole at BYU. A few weeks later, they charged back from 16 down to knock off Iowa. Dutcher credits his team's grit and toughness in both situations. He also mentioned that, historically, the team is "used to winning big."
In their past four games against Division I opponents, the Aztecs have done just that, averaging a margin of victory of 17 points, which includes a two-point win over San Jose State. But close calls are expected.
College basketball is known for its parity. For the non-believers, the Mountain West has had six different champions in the past six years. As Dutcher puts it, the season is a marathon. The path ahead can be harsh and "there are a lot of land mines."
As of Dec. 30, the league has three teams with double-digit wins (San Diego State, New Mexico and Utah State) and a total of six members possessing at least eight wins before the calendar turns to 2020.
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"Everyone says ‘what’s the toughest conference?’ It’s whatever conference you’re in. I would argue with the Mountain West, we have to play at altitude," Dutcher said. "We go to Laramie and play at 7,000 feet. We go to Albuquerque and play at 7,000 feet. Air Force Academy, Colorado State, we’re playing at altitude in all those games. As much as people will dismiss it, it is a challenge."
Dutcher's interview with Katz begins at the 30:50 mark of the podcast and covers all of these topics and more. This week's edition of the March Madness 365 podcast additionally features interviews with college basketball analyst Dick Vitale and Butler head coach LaVall Jordan.