San Diego State University's Viejas Arena has been rockin' this season like never before. Sellouts are a given, student fans having taken to waiting in lines overnight for tickets. The impressive, 12,414-seat venue is packed well before tip-off.
Big, strong, fast and athletic, coach Steve Fisher's Aztecs (25-1), in their sixth straight 20-win season, have been the toast of the West Coast, overshadowing even the traditionally stronger Pac-10 Conference schools.
Assistant coach Justin Hutson, whose basketball roots were nurtured for more than 30 years in Bakersfield, is not only along for the ride on this red-hot basketball adventure.
He helped to script it.
Hutson, once a scrawny All-Area point guard who played for his dad, Mark, at Bakersfield High, and later for Cal State Bakersfield's national championship teams in 1993 and 1994, and who later coached BHS, has carved out an impressive niche next to Fisher.
It's been a great run, Hutson said, not only because of the program's unprecedented success, but for the sheer benefit of working under Fisher, whose pedigree includes a 1989 national championship and two subsequent Final Fours at Michigan -- remember the Fab Five? -- and three NCAA Tournament appearances in his 12 years at SDSU.
"The way he handles his players and coaches is the best," Hutson said. "The even-keel consistency. He's the greatest boss in the world to work for."
On the four-man coaching staff, Hutson, 39, carries the titles of defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator.
With a roster of stars who are off to the best start in school history, are ranked No. 6 nationally and who allow opponents a shooting percentage of less than 40 percent, it's clear that Hutson is having a positive impact.
"He relates and deals well with players on the team," Fisher said of Hutson. "As a coach, you're the teacher, and (he's) not afraid to tell someone they're not working. He is an outstanding recruiter, a wonderful people person, and I put him in charge of our defense. He's our point person. We're all involved, but Justin is the choreographer. He brings the main thrust to that part of the game. And yet he's very involved in the offensive end."
Although success is not new to this Aztec program, this is the first season in which the Aztecs have cracked the Top 25, climbing as high as No. 4 in January. Fisher's been featured on ESPN's Sports Center as well as that network's report called "Outside the Lines." Aztec guard Tim Shelton, who played his freshman season at Bakersfield High, recently was interviewed on the sports TV talkshow "Jim Rome is Burning."
"The program's growth has received so much attention lately, and that's different," Hutson said. "We've usually had five or six sellouts a year. Now, every game has been sold out."
The national notoriety has been nice, but it hasn't made anyone's job easier. The coaching staff of any college basketball program is up early and to bed late, a grind frought with travel to and from games and recruiting excursions, recruiting phone calls, breaking down video, making game and practice plans, dealing with media, etc.
And, of course, practices.
"He takes great pride in making sure we don't neglect to do the little things," Fisher said of Hutson. "In practice and in games, he's a stickler for detail. He makes sure that effort is the main part of ability. He's done a magnificent job with the defense."
The Aztec players, most of them recruited by Hutson, have learned to appreciate his approach.
"He's definitely not quiet, and he's definitely an intensity guy," said senior guard D.J. Gay, whose last-second, 18-foot jump shot beat Colorado State 56-54 last week. "We'll be doing the smallest drill over and over til we do it right. He's always stressing being mentally tough, as much as physically tough. He's just done a great job of changing people's thoughts from 'I've got to score,' to 'let's lock this team down.'
"He's gotten the team all on the same page. When he talks, everyone's willing to buy in. Everyone respects him."
SDSU's voracious defense has limited opponents to an average of 58.6 points per game this season, 10th best average in the nation, and 39 percent shooting, totals most any coach would be proud of.
"We still win games when we're not playing well offensively," Hutson said. "The proudest thing that we can say is that we've had off-games offensively, numerous games that we still won because we continued to play defense."
Count New Mexico coach Steve Alford among the believers.
"The best defensive team we've played all year," Alford told the San Diego Tribune last month after his Lobos shot 37.9 percent on their home court in an 87-77 loss to the Aztecs. "They probably don't get enough credit for what they do at the defensive end. ...
"They're big, they're long, they're athletic, they've got a good demeanor to their defense, they're playing with a sense of urgency at the defensive end. That makes them very hard to score against."
On the recruiting trail, Hutson doesn't normally venture far and wide, mostly because he's taken ownership of his own backyard, Southern California. And he's succeeded despite operating in the shadow of the more celebrated Pac-10. For example, he snagged Kawhi Leonard, a 6-8 sophomore forward who could wind up being an NBA lottery pick in June, out of King High in Riverside -- right under the noses of USC and UCLA.
Of 13 roster players, 10 Aztecs are from California, six of those from Southern California.
"Coach Hut, he is kind of the reason why I am at San Diego State," said Gay, who attended Poly High in Sun Valley and was also recruited by USC, UC Irvine and Pepperdine. "I was verbally committed (to UCI), but coach Hut called me and called me and said, 'You can't make that decision without coming and taking a look at San Diego State.' He still pushed, just to take one last look, got me down here and the rest is history.
"He recruited all the players I came in with and it seemed like a great fit."
Hutson's been a gym rat since he was barely able to walk, and his coaching tendencies took root at a young age as well. A fixture at his dad's Bakersfield High practices when he was a grade schooler, he was also keeping the scorebook at night-time varsity games when other boys his age were parked in front of their TVs.
Although he was roughly half the size of the BHS players on the teams, he wouldn't hesitate to let them know if he thought they were slacking.
"I was very emotionally invested in the Drillers, and that's an understatement," he said. "I'd go home, similar to now, rethink the game in my mind, and couldn't asleep. I was like that at a young age. It was like that if the Drillers lost a game.
"They were my role models and heroes. My father was No. 1, and Andrew Hill (former Bakersfield High and South High coach) was a big part of my life, my godfather."
Little did he know, at the time, it was all part of his path toward a career that included four years as the Driller varsity coach, and two as an assistant at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before he landed at SDSU.
"He's an outstanding basketball coach, and that means every aspect," Fisher said of his understudy. "He's the son of a coach, and it shows. He is someone that is very well versed in every facet of what it takes to be successful, and that in no small part is based on his father (Mark) and all success he had."
Hutson says he believes he meshes "real well" with Fisher, and continues to learn from his mentor.
"He's at his best when times are at their worst. And he's a great role model," Hutson said of Fisher. "And he has a very good rapport with everybody -- people of all walks of life, and he has the respect of the basketball community."
The chemistry, the players, the offense, the defense -- it's all made for an incredible experience this season for the Aztecs -- and their fans.
"It's great," said Justin's dad, Mark, who retired from teaching and coaching last year, with 493 victories, and still resides in Bakersfield. "I've been to several San Diego State games and had lot people come up tell me how much they love (Justin)," he said. "And coach Fisher has said it to me several times. As a parent, I'm very proud. You want your kids to excel and do well for themselves. So yeah, I'm a very proud papa."