Following a trip to the Final Four, Aztec fans should be very nervous

For 31 minutes and 42 seconds, the FAU Owls had a lead over the Aztecs. But, they did not finish with the lead due to Lamont Butler's buzzer beater. He made history and the Aztecs are still dancing. (Don De Mars /EVT)

NRG Stadium erupted after Butler’s buzzer-beater. The Aztec faithful was loud and proud. There was a clear home crowd advantage for the Red and Black. (Don De Mars / EVT)

On April 23, 2022, John H. Ruiz, the CEO of LifeWallet, tweeted out the following announcement.

“***BREAKING NEWS*** @LifeWallet is proud to announce @NijelPack24 has officially committed to UM as a basketball player. The biggest LifeWallet deal to date, two years, $800,000.00 total at $400,000.00 per year plus a car. Congratulations!!!”

Ruiz’ near million-dollar agreement stipulated that sophomore guard Nijel Pack transfer from Kansas State to the University of Miami. Nearly a year later, San Diego State’s men’s basketball team shared the stage with Pack and the Hurricanes in the Final Four.

Pack was hardly alone. The Salt Lake Tribune said a six-figure NIL deal likely played a key role in Utah State transfer Steven Ashworth’s decision to play at Creighton. The Albuquerque Journal reported that New Mexico’s NIL collective distributed over $500,000 last year, with several basketball transfers getting six figures.

SDSU’s basketball players guided the Aztecs further than Pack took the Hurricanes. They defeated Utah State and New Mexico to win the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. Shouldn’t their compensation at least match those from the same conference?

Keshad Johnson enjoys the celebration after winning an outright MW title. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I hope that people are nervous about (SDSU’s success) continuing because of this new variable,” Jeff Smith, CEO of the Mesa Foundation, told EVT. “Our biggest challenge is to get people to recognize that the only way that we can help ensure that San Diego State basketball continues down the path that it has is for people to get behind and support it financially … because in the absence of that support, the program will change because these athletes have options.”

Smith’s aim with Mesa is to have an NIL collective that complements the program Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher have built. Miami’s model is not the goal.

The Aztecs have thrived in the margins of college basketball. Largely unnoticed by the nation but played out in front of a passionate fanbase, SDSU has out-performed flashier programs with larger budgets and media attention by attracting special athletes whose immense talent is only surpassed by the effort they give on and off the court. NIL threatens to derail what has made the Aztecs special.

“If I’m a basketball player that’s thinking about transferring or I’m a high school basketball player, and I’m watching that run to the Final Two, to that championship game and I watch that rotation, and I hear about the number of minutes that our basketball teams playing and the number of guys that are on the floor that are contributing, I want to be there,” Smith said. “Those are the players that we want to continue to attract. We just have got to make sure that we have something that can’t be looked at as a reason to go look at other schools.”

Throughout the school’s NCAA Tournament run, Dutcher bristled at any suggestion that his team was a mid-major. He argued that, like Gonzaga, SDSU is a high-major program in a mid-major conference. That distinction is part of the classification of the old world of college basketball. In the new world, programs without robust collectives are mid-majors, and those with support from these parallel organizations are the high-majors.

Fran McCaffery, the University of Iowa’s men’s basketball coach, made national news this week by detailing the dark underbelly of NIL. He explained how agents market mid-major players before they were in the portal and, after finding out how much money they could make, would convince them to transfer.

Smaller schools are not the only ones susceptible to players leaving for more lucrative opportunities. Syracuse lost forward Jesse Edwards to West Virginia. In explaining his decision, Edwards cited the Orange’s lack of NIL opportunities as a factor.

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“It would be naive to think that given all of these stories that we’re all hearing that there aren’t conversations that are taking place (among SDSU’s players), that there aren’t opportunities that are being explored because it’s new,” Smith explained. “And for some folks, if these numbers are true from some of these other schools, it’s very impactful. It’s life-changing for some of them.”

Brian Dutcher celebrates the Aztecs title. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

Reflecting the character of their head coach, the Aztecs are a collection of athletes who enjoy the model Mesa provides. Each scholarship athlete receives the same amount of compensation in exchange for appearing at events that serve the community and are aligned with SDSU’s values.

This summer, Mesa will be hosting a pair of camps. At the Intertribal Sports Camp, SDSU’s players will lead over 250 Native American children. They will also host an event at Camp Pendleton for the children of active-duty military members.

These will join a growing catalog of ways SDSU players are using their Name, Image, and Likeness to make America’s Finest City even finer. The trip to the Final Four raised the profile of SDSU’s basketball team, and it makes these community interactions even more valuable to the people fortunate enough to participate in them.

“It is for sure the connection between the players with the folks that have donated to Mesa and have been a part of Mesa Foundation’s efforts,” Smith replied when asked what his favorite part of last year was. “There’s a very clear shift in their connection and really their support, it changes. … it becomes kind of this human element, where (the players) are people and you feel like, for the right reasons, that you are now a part of the team.”

Everything is pointing in the direction of SDSU continuing its ascension into the ranks of the best programs in America. It has one of the top coaches in the country leading it. It offers everything a gym rat could want facility-wise. It has bucked the west coach trend and continues to draw terrific crowds each game. Soon, it should be a member of the most attractive conference in the Pacific Time Zone. It is coming off a spot in the National Title Game.

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These gains, though, will be offset unless Mesa reaches its full potential. Though it met all its goals for last year, Smith admits that the collective has not reached a point of sustainability yet.

“The biggest concern I have is making sure people listen because it’s really easy to be a San Diego State fan and not do anything other than just cheer for your team,” Smith said. “It’s kind of the way things have been historically. The world’s changed, and we need all those San Diego State fans to understand that they’ve got to support, that they have to financially participate, even if it’s $20 a month or $100 a year or whatever it is.”

At its core, SDSU’s basketball program is a story of the power of grassroots. Fisher and Dutcher built the program one recruit, one donor, and one supporter at a time. The Show grew from the passion of one student in a sombrero and cape into the Madhouse on the Mesa. Aztec Nation has one more grassroots movement to accomplish. It needs tens of thousands of fans to support its NIL endeavors.

Until it answers that call, Aztec fans should be very nervous.

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