Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 18: San Diego State’s Steve Fisher. On Thursday, we release No. 17.
It started with Randy Holcomb.
He was just a reserve at Fresno State before transferring to San Diego State University, where coach Steve Fisher transformed him into a marquee player his junior and senior seasons.
Holcomb never made it in the NBA after being a second-round pick in 2002, but he does have a legacy at SDSU. During Fisher’s 15 seasons with the Aztecs, he’s had a knack for developing a do-it-all type of player to lead his teams.
Holcomb was the prototype. Back in 2001-02, he helped give Fisher his first 20-win season at San Diego State -- the program’s first since 1984-85 -- and established a hint of things to come.
Now it’s a regular occurrence for the Aztecs to win 20 games. In 2013-14, they accomplished the feat for the ninth straight season. Conference championships, NCAA tournament appearances and Top 25 rankings are no longer a rarity, either.
The common thread that has led to Fisher’s success with the Aztecs generally begins with a featured player who has the ability to make everyone around him better.
The Aztecs are poised to continue their run with junior forward Winston Shepard next in line to follow those versatile standouts.
Certainly some players stumble when making the transition from supporting cast to featured attraction, and Shepard won’t be alone among SDSU players who could take over the leadership mantle.
Sixth man Dwayne Polee II raised eyebrows in the postseason by nearly doubling his regular-season scoring average to reach 14 points per game. The 6-foot-7 rising senior proved to be more than just a defensive stopper off the bench. Big things are also expected from Angelo Chol, an Arizona transfer who sat out last season. The 6-foot-9 forward could add to Fisher’s successful track record of transfers who flourish in his system. Chol will give the Aztecs a physical presence that they’ve lacked in the post.
But it is Shepard who appears most likely to fit the role. Shepard took a big step from his freshman to sophomore years, going from a bit role on offense to the Aztecs’ second-leading scorer behind Thames last season, averaging 11.6 points per game.
Fisher is notorious in his distaste for defining positions. Watch Shepard and you’ll understand why. He can play any position on the floor with the exception of center. It’s not uncommon to see him as a point-forward in offensive sets dishing out the ball. He was second on the team behind Thames in total assists and averaged 2.1 per game last season.
With the departure of forward Josh Davis, last season’s leading rebounder, Shepard is the heir apparent in that category, as well. He was second on the team with 4.9 rebounds per game last season.
At 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, Shepard also established a reputation for being able to defend everywhere from point guard to power forward.
He has the skill set to move from star-in-waiting to having a bona fide breakout season. To do that, Shepard will have to tighten up his perimeter game. His outside shooting could keep him from being a potential All-American and Mountain West Player of the Year candidate.
Shepard will certainly be looking for redemption after watching his shooting slide in the postseason. Opponents baited him into taking more perimeter shots while clogging the lane, and his percentages plummeted.
He shot 31.5 percent from the field (12 of 38) in the Mountain West tournament and watched his shooting dip to just 28 percent from the field (7 of 25) in the NCAA tournament.
Overall, Shepard will likely handle the ball more than he did last season, when he totaled 80 turnovers -- six more than his total assists. That also is an area he’ll have to improve upon for the Aztecs to reach their potential.
But if he’s able to do that, Shepard should add his name to the list of players who've helped carry the Aztecs under Fisher.