LAS VEGAS -- When Kawhi Leonard put pen to paper and signed his national letter of intent in November 2008, it was somewhat of a head-scratcher.
San Diego State had just landed California's Mr. Basketball. He went on to become the conference's freshman of the year. Today, you can also call Leonard the Mountain West Conference tournament's MVP, as he led the Aztecs to the NCAAs with a 21-rebound, 16-point performance in a 55-45 win against UNLV.
"He's at San Diego State for this," Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. "For this. He knew where people would care for him. He knew where we would be true to helping him grow his game, grow him as a person. And he trusted in us.
"We don't have to get on knee pads to recruit against the Pac-10. We don't beat 'em often. But we got a guy that right now they would all love a mulligan to try to get involved with him."
These Aztecs aren't exactly the "Fab Five" Fisher had at Michigan, but somehow on a smaller stage, he's pieced together a championship team with players who needed a second chance.
Leonard stuck with San Diego State when Pac-10 schools didn't seem as interested.
Guard Kelvin Davis, who carried the league trophy into the press conference, transferred out of UTEP, beat Hodkin's lymphoma and then cashed in his sixth year of eligibility with a title.
Center Brian Carlwell got a change of scenery and provided a 297-pound presence in the middle after literally being left for dead by a University of Illinois teammate after a 2007 car crash.
"I have said to many people that this is a great group of guys to be with. They're respectful. We've had more compliments this year on airplanes and hotels and in airports about that with our kids.
"They respect one another. They trust one another. They have pride in one another. And that wins."
Leonard cleaned up on the glass on UNLV's errant shots and also hit all eight of his second-half free throws to help seal the win. As Fisher said, "Kawhi is Kawhi. Every ball that comes off the board is his."
Leonard said he didn't necessarily envision any of this when he first set foot on campus.
"We just set team goals," Leonard said.