LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Brian Dutcher will always be known as the guy who spent all those years at Steve Fisher's side, winning the NCAA title at Michigan in 1989 and recruiting the Fab Five before helping to build San Diego State into a West Coast power.
It's a pretty full resume, for sure. Dutcher has added to it with his first two March Madness wins in his six seasons as head coach and hopes there's more to come for SDSU.
Awaiting the Aztecs is a Sweet 16 matchup with overall No. 1 seed Alabama in Louisville in the South Region on Friday, with the No. 5 seed Aztecs looking for their first-ever trip to the Elite Eight.
“We just say that if we’re the best version of us, we’ll have a chance to win,” Dutcher said. "So I always say our No. 1 opponent is ourselves. Play up to our standard. If we do that, then we should have a chance to win the game.”
The Aztecs (29-6) are in the Sweet 16 for just the third time in school history and the first time since 2014. They won the Mountain West regular-season and conference tournament titles and then beat Charleston and Furman to advance to the second weekend of March Madness.
Fisher and Dutcher built the Aztecs into a program that always has high expectations. To Dutcher, who was promoted after Fisher retired in October 2017, this is exactly what the Aztecs are supposed to be doing.
It's just taken a bit longer than many expected. The Aztecs lost their first three NCAA Tournament games under Dutcher. Additionally, the Aztecs will always wonder what would have happened in 2020, when they were 30-2 behind Malachi Flynn and poised for a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID.
Dutcher makes it clear that this run is about the team, not him.
“That’s what they pay us to do is coach the team, get the best out of the team, and we’re supposed to win, and we’re supposed to win in March," said Dutcher, 63, who spent nine seasons as an assistant under Fisher at Michigan and 18 more at SDSU, including six years with the “head coach in waiting” designation. "We can’t tell everybody we recruit that we want to win a Final Four or win a national championship and then act like we’re super overly excited when we do win.
“So it’s just how I’m wired. I’m more happy for the kids," Dutcher added. “You know, I’ve been to a number of them, and I don’t take anything for granted. But I like the guys that go for the first time, that came here to win games, and then now they’re winning games.”
The Aztecs are deep, big and tough, with Dutcher constantly preaching a defense-first mentality. Four of the top five scorers are transfers. Leading scorer Matt Bradley (13 points) is in his second season after transferring from California. Darrion Trammell (9.5), Micah Parrish (7.9) and Jaedon LeDee, a force inside at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, are new this season. LeDee averages 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds.
Dutcher's nine-man rotation also includes holdovers Adam Seiko, Nathan Mensah, Lamont Butler, Keshad Johnson and Aguek Arop.
Johnson, Seiko, Arop and Mensah were on the 2019-20 team that was just three days away from receiving its best seed ever when the pandemic shut down the sports world.
“I’m for sure using that as motivation,” Seiko said. “For that to go down how it did was very disappointing. Three years later we’re making a run in the tournament, the Sweet 16. We’re not complacent. We want to keep making a run and reach the Final Four.”
SDSU was routed by Syracuse in the 2021 NCAA Tournament in the Indianapolis bubble and then lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Creighton last year.
“It’s really a blessing,” Seiko said about having more chances in the NCAA Tournament. “It’s testimony to the winning culture here at San Diego State that we were able to make the tournament in the past few seasons after that. We lost in the first round but this year we figured out ways to get better, especially down the stretch. We’re all happy to be here to make the run.”
Fisher, who watches home games with his wife, Angie, from the second row above the SDSU bench, is pleased for his protégé.
“I'm very proud of what Dutch has done. When we came here in 1999 we talked about a program and not being a one-hit wonder,” Fisher said. “We wanted to have a great foundation and build a program, and that's what's happened and that's what's continuing to happen as he grows."