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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Four weeks ago, when San Diego State was 13-10 and in eighth place in the Mountain West Conference, even a berth in the NIT seemed farfetched in the Aztecs' first season under coach Brian Dutcher.
There were rumblings that maybe Dutcher hadn't been the right guy to replace Steve Fisher, even though the longtime loyal lieutenant had been the "head coach in waiting" since 2011.
Then it all changed as Dutcher guided the Aztecs out of the rough stretch and back into the NCAAs for the seventh time in nine seasons.
SDSU has won nine straight games, including a three-game run through the conference tournament to clinch the MWC's automatic berth. The Aztecs beat three higher-seeded teams, including top-seeded and No. 22 Nevada, which they also defeated at home in the final week of the regular season.
One huge boost for the Aztecs was the return of senior guard Trey Kell, who had missed three games with a sprained ankle, including consecutive blowout losses at Nevada and Fresno State.
Then there was Dutcher's unwavering belief in a team that missed the postseason altogether last year, Fisher's 18th and final season leading the Aztecs.
"I told them we were the best team in the conference," Dutcher said after the Aztecs (22-10) drew the 11th seed in the West Regional and a matchup against sixth-seeded Houston (26-7) on Thursday in Wichita, Kansas. "We had to go out there and prove that, not only to ourselves, but to the rest of the conference. We went on an incredible run."
Dutcher has been to the NCAA Tournament 16 times previously, eight as an assistant at Michigan and eight with SDSU. All were at Fisher's side except one, after Fisher had been fired because of the program's involvement with booster Ed Martin. Dutcher was there when Fisher was elevated to interim head coach on the eve of the 1989 NCAA Tournament and led the Wolverines to the championship.
When Fisher was hired by SDSU prior to the 1999-2000 season, he brought Dutcher along as he revived the moribund program. SDSU went to the NCAA tourney eight times under Fisher. The Aztecs went a school-record six straight times from 2010-15, including the school's first two Sweet 16 appearances.
"Just by nature, I'm happiest for the kids," said Dutcher, who never had been a head coach until replacing Fisher. "Because as a coach, maybe if you fall short a year you can always go the next year, the next year, the next year. These kids, they have a four-year opportunity to go the NCAA Tournament. When Trey and Malik (Pope) went their first year, it seemed like, well hell, maybe we'll go three more. As it turned out we got to their senior year and we really had to play well to get them there for their senior year."
Fisher remains a university employee, working on development. Fisher also drives his son, Mark, who has ALS, to and from campus where he remains part of the coaching staff.
Steve Fisher said he's proud of Dutcher's stability and consistency.
"So often when you have some bumps in the road, you tend to jerk the wheel all over the road, and he's had a steady hand on the rudder and the wheel," Fisher said. "He bowed his back. Ten games ago when we got beat by 20 at Nevada, everybody was talking about how bad we were and all of this stuff and he's just steady as a rock. And I think that guided the team through where they were to where they are. ... And the team, too. They've done a magnificent job, and he's been the leader of the pack. Good for all of them."
Fisher has gone to every home game and some on the road, including the conference tournament.
"It's different," he said. "It's easier. You sit where I do and you've got all the answers right after the fact. You don't realize how hard it is when you're sitting where I was, for those on the bench. I've been a good fan and I've been a nervous fan with a vested interest.
"We feel that we've got a program, underline program, and we should have an opportunity to compete to get into the NCAA Tournament, and we found a way this year, so it was very nice," Fisher added.
Dutcher sees Steve Fisher every day. During the rough stretch, he said the former coach offered encouragement rather than strategy.
"We usually just say hello," said Dutcher, whose father, Jim, was head coach at Eastern Michigan and Minnesota. "He doesn't want to interject unless I ask him. So he's not up in there closing the door and saying, 'I think I have some advice for you.' All the advice he's given me is 29 years in the making. If I wasn't listening, there's no sense in listening now."
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