Tuesday, March 24, 2009 | Oh, how quickly fortunes can change in a basketball town.

San Diego State is enjoying its longest basketball season on the calendar. Instead of having packed away uniforms and equipment, the

Aztecs’ men’s team has a March 25 NIT game at Cox Arena that is the latest date for a post-season contest in the history of Division I basketball in this town.

A year ago, San Diego’s longest college basketball season was the

University of San Diego’s men losing on March 23 to Western Kentucky in a second-round NCAA tournament after having upset Connecticut in the first round. It marked the first time a San Diego men’s college team won an NCAA Division I tournament game.

You didn’t have to cup your ear to hear a San Diego State fan whining with trepidation that USD had passed by the Aztecs.

But San Diego State’s men and women, left out in the cold last year, have turned the tables. One year after USD’s men and women advanced to the NCAA tournament, the Toreros are the ones without a post-season dance ticket.

SDSU’s men have advanced to the NIT’s third round Wednesday at Cox

Arena against the winner of Monday night’s Davidson-Saint Mary’s game.

The women not only upset DePaul Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Aztecs were host to the sub-regional now that the university boasts of an arena worthy of hosting such an event. The

Aztecs are ascending program that earned a date in Monday’s NCAA second round against No. 2-ranked Stanford.

The last time San Diego was this close to establishing itself as a basketball town, the late Laurence O’Brien, who now splits his time between that great Democratic convention hall and NBA court in the sky, pulled the covers on a sport that was just finding a niche.

The Clippers, in their first year here since moving from Buffalo in the

1978-79 season, finished the year with a 43-27 run after a 2-12 start for 43-39 record. They were averaging about 9,000 fans a game — which in today’s NBA attendance numbers is equal to about 16,000 or 18,000 fans a game.

The Clippers were truly one of the NBA’s most bright spots. Their record was good enough for a playoff bid in the Eastern Conference, but not in the loaded Western Conference.

That season is one of the least appreciated chapters in San Diego’s sports history.

Remember, these were the dark days of the NBA before Magic Johnson and

Larry Bird arrived from college as rookies in 1979-80 to turn around the image of the league and crank up its marketing machine.

Those also were the days of archaic free agency rules that allowed the

NBA commissioner, O’Brien, to decide how much compensation was owed the

Portland Trailblazers after then-Clippers owner Irv Levin made the bold move of signing Bill Walton as a free agent to bring him home to San


O’Brien crippled the Clippers when he forced San Diego to send to

Portland NBA All-Star guard Randy Smith, rising star power forward Kermit Washington, dependable center Kevin Kunnert, future draft picks and cash.

In return, San Diego got what turned out to be damaged goods as

Walton’s fragile feet never regained the health that allowed him to lead the Trailblazers to the 1976-77 NBA championship and win the MVP award.

To this day Walton wrongly blames himself for the demise of NBA basketball in San Diego. It’s a story far more complicated than his injuries that includes Donald Sterling buying the franchise and running it into the ground so he had an excuse to move it to Los Angeles.

But now Steve Fisher has an SDSU men’s team that has won 25 games — the most in school history — and is one win shy of advancing to the NIT Final Four in New York City.

A week ago, this was viewed as a disappointing season of settling for the NIT for the third straight year. But now, the Aztecs are playing for something. They’re making their case for having deserved an NCAA at-large bid stronger.

“That is a team that deserved to be in the NCAA tournament,” Weber

State coach Randy Rahe said after his Wildcats lost to SDSU in the first round of the NIT. “They not only deserved to be in, they could have won a couple of games.”

SDSU loses a lot from this year’s team to graduation — most notably the passing game of forward Lorrenzo Wade and the defense of point guard Richie Williams.

But they could be better next year — assuming they continue to share the ball as they did this year — with the addition of Illinois transfer Brian Carlwell, Pepperdine transfer Tyrone Shelley and San Diego City College transfer Malcolm Thomas.

The recruits include Riverside North’s Kawhni Leonard, who put together such a strong senior year people are wondering how the Aztecs got him away from a Pac-10 school.

Meanwhile, San Diego State’s women will be a Top-25 program next year.

The Aztecs strong finish, including a Mountain West Conference regular-season co-championship, has been earning votes in the latest polls.

SDSU returns its best players next year and in addition to gaining a stronger inside game with the return of Allison Duffy from a season-long suspension Jessika Bradley gaining eligibility after sitting out as a transfer from national power Baylor.

“They’ve done a great job building this program and creating some excitement,” said Stanford assistant coach Kate Paye, who was an assistant at SDSU under head coach Beth Burns before returning to her alma mater.”

I predict it won’t be long before San Diego basketball fans are grumbling if the Aztecs or Toreros lose a first-round NCAA tournament game. Just getting to the NCAA won’t be a big deal in the latest incarnation of San Diego as a basketball town.

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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