LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- With San Diego State playing in the school's first-ever Elite Eight NCAA tournament game on Sunday against Creighton, Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said opportunity looms for the basketball program and the school's athletic department, with both USC and UCLA headed to the Big Ten next season.
"Realignment is here," Dutcher said. "So everybody is just waiting for the next shoe to drop. Whether that's the Big Ten or the Pac-12 or the Big 12 or ACC. There's going to be more realignment."
With UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 and soon to be playing a vast majority of their conference games thousands of miles away, San Diego State plans to entrench itself in Southern California as a sensible regional option. The Aztecs played their opening weekend of the NCAA tournament more than 2,000 miles away in Orlando, Florida, and Dutcher said that trip gave him a window into the travel challenges that the new Big Ten schools will be facing in basketball.
"Even though [our flight] was a charter, I thought, my goodness, those guys have to do this every other week to play a basketball game? It would be exhausting," he said. "It's going to be a real challenge to be at their best with that kind of travel. I'm wishing them all the best, but that's more travel than I would ever wish on anybody."
With the Pac-12 expected to receive clarity on its next television deal in the upcoming weeks, the potential has loomed for months that the conference could add programs whenever that deal is completed. San Diego State remains at the forefront of that conversation, thanks to the school's location and a strong run of success in both football and men's basketball to go along with solid academics.
San Diego State athletic director John David Wicker said that the program, regardless of whether it's in the Mountain West or Pac-12, will be able to sell regional travel to recruits. He sees the amount of travel that USC and UCLA will have to do for league play as a potential recruiting advantage for San Diego State. When the Aztecs were flying to Orlando for the opening weekend, he said he mentioned 2½ hours into their trip that they'd be only halfway to many Big Ten schools.
"I think that's going to be huge for us," Wicker said. "Maybe it doesn't impact football because football is not that many trips, but everything else, that's a lot of travel. I think it helps."
As Dutcher added, "I just feel like you should play regionally. It's better on the kids. It's easier to be a student-athlete instead of just an athlete."
Dutcher has been the head coach at San Diego State for six seasons and has been on staff at the school since 1999. During that time, he has seen the program grow into essentially the professional basketball team of a city that ranks No. 8 in population in the country.
The turning point for capturing the city's attention came in 2010-11, when Kawhi Leonard was a sophomore on an Aztecs team that went 34-3. Prior to this season, the school's best chance to reach the Final Four might have come in 2019-20, when it finished 30-2 and appeared in line for a No. 1 seed before the pandemic cancelled the NCAA tournament.
The school's football program has a 7-4 record against Pac-12 schools since 2016, and it made bowl games the past 12 full seasons. In five of the past seven full seasons, San Diego State has won double-digit football games. Since 2010, San Diego State has the highest combined winning percentage of any Division I school in football and men's basketball at 73.8%, ahead of Ohio State (72.9%) and Oregon (71.1%).
"I always thought the Pac-12 would not ask us in with UCLA and USC because they would put us on equal footing, and we would be too great a competitor to let in," Dutcher said. "So now that they're gone and Southern California has a really good team sitting in San Diego, I would think we would be desirable for the Pac-12, the Big 12, a lot of conferences."
San Diego State has been building toward this moment. The school opened Snapdragon Stadium for football this past fall; it cost $310 million, and it resonates as the hallmark of its facility projects. The environment at Viejas Arena for basketball on campus has long been regarded as one of the most intense and dynamic in the country. The combination of market, success and landscape uncertainty has made San Diego State's jump to a power conference an inevitability, with time as the looming variable.
"We'll be ready to step into a Power 5 conference if we get that opportunity," Wicker said. "I think basketball goes in with no problem. Football probably takes a little bit just from depth and things like that. But I'm not worried about us not being able to go right in and be competitive."
Both No. 6 Creighton and No. 5 San Diego State are aiming for their first Final Four appearance on Sunday afternoon.