Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2009 | Comparing San Diego State’s star basketball players who returned for their senior year to NBA lottery picks who left college early might sound ridiculous, but that’s the point.

It was preposterous when Marcus Slaughter declared early for the NBA draft, skipping what would have been his senior year in 2006-07.

First he suffered the embarrassment of going undrafted. And then he didn’t make an NBA roster as a free agent.

Slaughter, reduced to playing professionally overseas, someday might get back to the NBA, although the odds are against it. But no matter how much money he’s made to date, he’ll never get back the 2006-07 season that would have been his senior year.

There have been players less talented than Lorrenzo Wade, Kyle Spain and Richie Williams that declared for the NBA draft, but these guys returned to SDSU as seniors and they’re having the times of their lives. College is supposed to be the best time of your life. How do you put a price tag on your senior year?

“We’ve always dreamed about this, growing up playing college basketball, playing on the stage that we play on,” Williams said. “We all have aspirations of playing at the next level, and when those windows of opportunity open for us we’re going to opt to take them.

“But Kyle and I stuck around. Lorrenzo stuck around for our senior year of college. And we’re just relishing it.”

San Diego State is tied for first place in the Mountain West Conference with Utah, where the Aztecs play Wednesday to break up what not long ago was a four-way logjam for first.

The Aztecs are 17-5 overall record and 7-2 in conference. Their upset last week at UNLV generated a large walk-up crowd Saturday night at Cox Arena that attracted 9,116 fans — the largest home crowd of the year — even though the opponent was hapless Air Force.

The Aztecs still have a long way to go to win a MWC regular-season title or MWC tournament title that comes with an automatic NCAA berth. But if they add more victories that generate more enthusiasm and bigger crowds and ultimately capture a conference title, there is no duplicating the experience.

“We have about four or five weeks left and then it’s the end of our career here at San Diego State,” Spain said. “It’s kind of depressing to think about it.”

Added Williams, “Like Kyle said, you come here freshman year and you think, ‘We got a long time before we’re gone.’ And then you blink and you have one more month. You just want time to slow down. You never know what’s around the next corner, but you’re never afraid. I’m happy and proud of what I’ve done here and accomplished and just can’t wait to move on with life.”

Williams, from Steele Canyon High, has the added experience of playing for his hometown state university.

“I’ve been fortunate to stay home,” Williams said. “Why go 3,000 miles away when you can get everything you want in your backyard? I’ve been able to play here and have my stability, my backbone, in my family. I have my coaching staff that cares about me and my teammates that care about me and love me just like a brother. You can’t ask for anything more.”

A guy like Williams will always be considered by Aztecs fans as “from San Diego State.” He broke Brandon Heath’s school and Mountain West Conference record for steals Saturday and now has 220 counting.

Heath and Slaughter were both part of the SDSU’s 2005-06 MWC championship team that advanced to the NCAA tournament, but if you bring them back in a few years, with gray hair flecking their temples, Heath is the one remembered as “from San Diego State?”

Heath graduated and finished his career with records. Slaughter left early with delusions of grandeur.

Of SDSU’s three senior stars, only Wade went through the initial steps of declaring for the 2008 NBA. He eventually was smart enough to withdraw his name and return for his senior year.

In reality, even in 2009 Wade may have to make an NBA roster as a free agent. He’s ranked No. 74 among seniors by Draftexpress.com. There are only 60 picks in the two-round NBA draft.

Wade could improve his stock with a strong finish and an NCAA tournament run, but there will be underclassmen lottery picks to mix into the rankings that will knock him back down.

Draftexpress.com considers Spain a fringe NBA prospect, although he also could prove people wrong. Williams’ lack of height limits his NBA opportunities, but Wade, Spain and Williams will all at least make money playing overseas.

Spain and Williams are fourth-year seniors and Wade spent one year at Louisville before transferring here. Ryan Amoroso, Kelvin Davis and Matt Thomas also are seniors, but Amoroso and Davis are junior college transfers and Thomas’ career has been interrupted by injuries.

Except when their futures were threatened by various suspensions, Wade, Spain and Williams have been the faces of the program.

“We have six seniors on the team and for us six, it’s the end of the road for us,” Spain said. “We want to put it all out on the floor and get a conference championship. We want to play to our potential.”

They only way they could do that was by returning for their senior year.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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