By BERNIE WILSON
The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — It’s almost like Brian Dutcher and the San Diego State Aztecs won the lottery when they attracted a trio of transfers.
Tired of losing at their old schools, big man Yanni Wetzell and guards Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin came to SDSU because they wanted to join a winning program and go to the NCAA Tournament.
And boy, have they won. The Aztecs are the nation’s only undefeated team and have matched the 20-0 start and No. 4 ranking achieved by the breakout 2010-11 team led by the most famous player in program history, Kawhi Leonard.
While there’s no escaping the comparisons to Leonard — who has since won two NBA championships and been named Finals MVP both times — this Aztecs team wants to stand on its own.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be compared to such a great team,” said Dutcher, in his third season as head coach after being an assistant to Steve Fisher for 18 seasons at SDSU and 10 at Michigan. “But this team has its own identity and its own goals and it feels good. But they don’t hang banners for 20-0, only for conference championships and we’re trying to win a Mountain West title and that’s our goal right now.”
While the Aztecs have attracted many transfers over the years, Dutcher hit the trifecta with this group.
Flynn, a junior from Tacoma, Washington, transferred from Washington State after the Cougars had losing records his first two seasons.
Wetzell, a 6-foot-10 forward from Auckland, New Zealand, is a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt, which went 0-18 in the SEC last year.
Feagin is a grad transfer from Santa Clara, where the Broncos had losing records two of his four seasons. Feagin attended Long Beach Poly, the same high school that produced Tony Gwynn, who was a basketball and baseball star at SDSU before beginning his Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres.
“I think this is a group of high IQ players,” Feagin said. “We all know how to play basketball. We know our roles and we fit our roles perfectly. We come without egos, knowing that we come from losing programs. We have to sacrifice certain personal needs for the team. So we knew what it was coming in. We stuck to the script and everything came along rather seamlessly.”
That’s the common theme.
“We came from losing programs, but I wouldn’t call any of us a loser,” said Flynn, who leads the Aztecs with 16.6 points and five assists per game. “We all knew that. KJ knew that. Yanni knew that. We all came here and bought in. I think it’s a winning mentality that we all have and we’re going to continue to do that.”
SDSU missed the postseason entirely last year but made the NCAA Tournament seven of the previous nine seasons, including two Sweet 16 appearances.
“Just knowing that they’ve been to the tournament year after year, that’s why I wanted to come here,” Flynn said. “I wanted to play in the tournament. I didn’t come close to that in my first two years so that was a huge reason.”
All three transfers credit the family atmosphere around the program and the way Dutcher has helped them mesh with returning players such as Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel and Nathan Mensah. Mensah is out indefinitely with a respiratory ailment.
“A lot of times when you have transfers coming in, there can be an uproar,” said Wetzell, who accentuates his strong inside game with an occasional hook shot from the post or baseline. “We were lucky enough that they welcomed us with open arms and we just put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Wetzell (12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds) probably wouldn’t have transferred to SDSU if Jalen McDaniels hadn’t left for the NBA.
Wetzell switched from tennis to basketball his final year of high school and hadn’t heard of Fisher or Leonard until he came to the states to play at Division II St. Mary’s University in Texas.
“As soon as I came over here and I was indulging in the college basketball experience, then yeah, you learn about them quickly,” he said. “Steve Fisher’s Fab Five, I’ve watched that documentary a couple of times and obviously everyone knows about Kawhi and his run here at State.”
Dutcher said he looks for transfers who are willing to focus on defense first and want to win, not just pad their scoring average.
“As much as it is me convincing them to come, they have to convince me they’re ready to come,” Dutcher said. “I have to make sure they’re the right fit. It’s not all about talent, it’s about fit. We got the formula right with the fit.”
SDSU can eclipse the 2010-11 team if it wins at UNLV on Sunday to move to 21-0. But Leonard’s team reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history and finished 34-3, so the current squad still has a lot of work to do.
“I wouldn’t really put a restriction on how far we can go,” Wetzell said. “I think we’re as good as anyone in the country. I still don’t think we’ve reached our potential as a team. We can tell because every game we keep getting better defensively and offensively. It’s just a matter of being on the court together, playing those games and hopefully by March we’ll be the best team we can be.”