PROVO — When Steve Fisher took the reins of the San Diego State basketball program before the start of the 1999-2000 season, the Aztecs had suffered 13 losing seasons in the previous 14 years.
Now, Fisher — who led Michigan to a national championship in 1989 and a pair of championship game appearances with the Wolverines' Fab Five in the early 1990s — has rescued No. 4 SDSU (20-0, 5-0) from the depths of futility and helped carry it to new heights, including a spot in the top 10 rankings.
"We thought we had an opportunity to build a program and we've done that," Fisher said Monday. "We've won over 20 games for six straight years. We're very proud of that fact. It's well-documented that we've never won a game in the NCAA Tournament in the history of San Diego State. We've got a lot more work to do. But we thought we could compete for a conference championship. We have been able to do that. We weren't very good when we got here, and we're good now. We want to stay good."
The Aztecs are looking to continue their rise when they invade the Marriott Center to face No. 9 BYU (19-1, 5-0) tonight (8 p.m., CBS-C) in front of a sellout crowd of about 23,000.
While the Cougars have won five of the last six meetings in this series, the two teams have forged an intense rivalry over the years — though that is expected to come to an abrupt end as BYU bolts the Mountain West Conference for the West Coast Conference next season.
"It's a great program overall," Cougar guard Jackson Emery said of San Diego State. "Coach Fisher's a great coach and he's always had a good team. Every year it's a good game. It's always one we circle on our schedule."
"They're talented and used to winning," said BYU guard Jimmer Fredette. "They've won every game this season. We've been used to winning as well. It's two teams that are going to battle out there. We're both going to make plays when it counts and we'll see who ends up winning."
Both San Diego State and BYU have combined for 39 wins, but each team has employed its own style in generating success.
"We like to score a lot, and San Diego State is the best defensive team in the league," said coach Dave Rose. "Their pace is different."
SDSU's big men "get points all different ways," said Rose. "You've got to be able to control those guys somehow, or it's going to be a long night. … The frontline of San Diego State, they get points all different ways."
Leonard averages a double-double this season, with 15.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
"He's a handful," Rose said. "Not only because he's a great rebounder, but he's a great scorer. He's really improved his perimeter game. He's a guy that they really rely on in big possessions to make the play, but he doesn't have to have the ball in his hands to make a play."
An important part of BYU's game plan is to rebound relentlessly because of the way the Aztecs love to crash the boards.
"The No. 1 thing is rebounding," said Emery. "If you rebound well enough against these guys and don't give them a ton of opportunities, it's going to give us more opportunities on the offensive side."
Said Fredette: "We know (rebounding is) going to be a big key. I'm going to try to get in there as much as I possibly can and try to get rebounds. I think that's everybody's mindset. If we can get rebounds and run in transition, that will be a key to the game. They're going to want to slow it down. We want to push the tempo. It starts with us getting rebounds."
San Diego State wants to keep its record perfect after visiting Provo and continue its climb up the polls. Despite what they've accomplished this season, the Aztecs are still trying to earn national respect.
"Would we like to be rated No. 1? Absolutely," Fisher said. "But more importantly, we would like to win this game on Wednesday. We've found ways to win on the road."
The Aztecs won 25 games a year ago, but Rose said they're even better this year.29 comments on this story
"It's a group that's really playing with a purpose," Rose said. "They find ways to win games. Their focus is really good."
There's plenty at stake for both teams, with conference championship and NCAA Tournament seeding implications.
"Both teams are going to be gunning for each other because it's such a big game," said Fredette. "We know how big this game is. We know how important it is. It's just a huge game."
Cougars and Aztecs on the air
No. 4 San Diego State (20-0, 5-0) at No. 9 BYU (19-1, 5-0)
Today, 8 p.m.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM