words by tosten burks

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SDSU falls in tournament but rises in prominence

There is nothing better than a lovable loser. Just don’t call the Aztecs one.

San Diego State ended the season tragically, in a 67-74 loss to the Uni versity of Connecticut in the Sweet 16. It was a Ford Pinto of a contest, a match in which neither team truly felt comfortable in the driver’s seat. There were eight lead changes – in the first half. Neither team was ever up by double digits. Disastrously though, UConn ended the night up. And with that, SDSU’s season simply ended.

The loss left a city disappointed, and that is the most uplifting aspect of this entire 34 win, top-5 ranked sea son. That a Sweet 16 loss isn’t good enough for a team that has historically been irrelevant – SDSU averaged just over 10 wins a season in the decade prior to cur rent coach Steve Fisher’s arrival – is a testament to the triumph that Fisher has led this year.

“It should hurt, regardless of when, where and how,” Fisher said after the game. “For our team this year, for what they’ve accomplished, it hurts exponentially more.”

This is a powerful statement. This Aztec season was an accomplishment. And the loss to UConn, the winner of the Big East conference tournament, popularly considered to be the top conference in the nation, was painful.

Listen. Pain is proof of existence. And San Diego State basketball now exists on a national level. UConn pinched them in a ma jor way, and it hurt. They weren’t dreaming; this fantasy season was real, real success that will leave a real legacy.

First and foremost, this 2010 Aztecs clan was one of frontcourt dominance. While senior point guard D.J. Gay may have been the team’s spiritual leader, its passing pas tor, the offense undeniably hinges on its two temples in the post, senior forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas.

White is an emotional bull of a player, known for beat ing his chest with an unhealthy violence and beating de fenders with a left shoulder turnaround that manages to seem defiantly in-your-face even in its undefiant consis tency. He can back into the block just as easily as he can pull the ball out and drive the baseline, which is to say in a way that doesn’t appear easy at all, but rather full of pas sionate, blustering effort, until the ball effortlessly floats off the backboard into the hoop.

Billy White plays like a strong wind; full of unre strained tumult, until he’s past you, when he becomes a smooth, clean breeze running back down the court to play defense, two points in the bag. Also like wind, White never stops. He played 39 of a possible 40 minutes in the loss against UConn.

What White is to strength, Malcolm Thomas is to length. He stands at 6-foot-9, but plays like a 7-footer, mostly because he has the arms of an 8-footer. Thomas has this exact unrefined raw talent of a young giant. At times, he is awkwardly missing layups, but at others he is blocking shots with such smoothness that it is almost friendly, like he is just offering the offense another shot.

Against UConn, Thomas dropped 13 points, eight re bounds, and three assists in a performance that seemed much more dominant than the numbers even show. He made plays more consistently throughout the night than any other man on the roster.

Which brings us to sophomore Kawhi Leonard, the most consistent man on the roster throughout the year. He is 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, and probably the most ath letic player in the Mountain West Conference. No Az tec plays calmer than Leonard. More importantly, no one plays smarter. Leonard is the star, the freak who can guard centers and shooting guards, who can drain threes and rebound them with an equal amount of expertise. He put up 12 and nine against UConn, numbers that were surely drowned by his early foul trouble.

Most likely, Leonard will leave the team to be a first round pick in the NBA next year. To go with this end-of-season theme of bittersweetness, this departure is at once the worst and best thing for SDSU basketball in a long time. They are losing perhaps the best player they have ever had. But they are also, after many years of produc ing near-NBA’ers (Randy Halcomb, Marcus Slaughter, Brandon Heath) finally putting a representative onto the global stage.

Leonard will go from being the player most crucial to SDSU’s team to the player most crucial to SDSU’s repu tation, an altogether more important job.

And that is what this 2010-2011 Aztecs team is really all about. They went 34-3 unfortunately not on the path to an NCAA championship, but on the path to respect.

“We went from nobody even knowing about San Di ego State,” senior forward Billy White said after the game.

They became a rising member of the college basketball canon. This Aztecs team will not fade into history.