San Diego State’s Dutcher took an extra-long route — starting at Illinois — to the Final Four

Few, if any, coaches in Final Four history paid their dues longer than the 63-year-old leader of the Aztecs.

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San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher after winning the South Region of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher after winning the South Region of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Few, if any, coaches in Final Four history paid their dues longer than San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher.

As many NCAA Tournament watchers have heard over the last couple of weeks, Dutcher, 63, didn’t become a head coach until deep into his career; he was 57 when SDSU finally promoted him. Before that, he was an assistant to Steve Fisher for 27 years, nine of them at Michigan — where he recruited the heck out of the “Fab Five” — and 18 with the Aztecs.

For twice as long as Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre, Dutcher remained as patient as he could as the Aztecs’ official “head coach in waiting” until Fisher hung up his whistle two weeks before his 72nd birthday.

They’ve been to the Big Dance four times since and would have been a certain No. 1 seed had the 2020 tournament not been canceled due to the pandemic. Monday night in Houston, they’ll clash with UConn for the national title.

“When you replace a guy whose name is on [SDSU’s] court, you know you better win,” Dutcher said. “You better win right away, especially if you have no head coaching on your résumé. So, as much as I felt good about who I am and how I do things, you have to win in this business to survive.”

Beating the Huskies — who’ve destroyed everything in their path so far — would be a fitting end to one of the most unpredictable tournaments ever. It would be the biggest title-game upset since 9½-point underdog UConn toppled Duke in 1999. The Aztecs are 7½-point ’dogs.

“ ‘Be at your best when your best is required,’ ” Dutcher said, quoting John Wooden, “and that’s what we’re going to try to do. We’re going to try to play our best basketball. If they beat us at our best, then we’re going to congratulate them and shake their hands. But if we play at our best, we’ll have a chance to win the game.”

The television cameras no doubt will find UConn coach Dan Hurley’s famous family in the stands at least a few times. Big brother Bobby is a Duke legend and the coach at Arizona State. Dad Bob Sr. won a hard-to-fathom 26 state championships as a high school coach in Jersey City, N.J.

But the Dutchers have done A-OK, too. Dutcher’s father, Jim, had a solid run as coach at Minnesota from 1975 to 1986.

And here’s something no one has been talking about: Dutcher got his feet wet in coaching at Illinois when the Illini’s Lou Henson did the elder Dutcher a solid and took on his son as a graduate assistant 40 years ago.

“It showed the quality of character he had that he [hired] the son of a rival Big Ten school’s coach’s son,” Dutcher said. “He didn’t worry about it. He didn’t care about that.

“I learned so much from Lou Henson. He was just a master psychologist. He knew how to manage his team. Never uttered a curse word in the two years I worked for him, and that’s amazing. He was just a class individual. What a great coach to work for. What a great mentor he was to me.”

And what a long time Dutcher waited for all this.

THREE-DOT DASH

So much for sentimentality: Huskies 74, Aztecs 64.

And print it. …

The crazy thing about that Duke-UConn point spread in ’99 is both the Blue Devils and the Huskies were No. 1 seeds. Both teams finished with just two losses. What were chalk bettors thinking?

Probably that UConn hadn’t been there before, because it hadn’t. Four — maybe five — championships later, it’s kind of a different story.

We probably should mention UConn’s 11 women’s titles now, right? Holy smokes, what basketball tradition at that school. …

Dutcher knew his team could go far after the Aztecs more than held their own in a closed scrimmage against UCLA before the season. It’s reminiscent of the experience former Loyola coach Porter Moser had during a similar scrimmage against Northwestern — which had four starters back from an NCAA Tournament team — before the 2017-18 campaign. In short, the Final Four-bound Ramblers ran the Wildcats out of the gym. …

LSU v Iowa

LSU ended Iowa’s Caitlin Clark-led run in the title game.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The entire women’s college season was good, but the tournament — especially the Final Four — was a total scream. Iowa’s semifinal upset of unbeaten South Carolina was beyond exciting. LSU’s big-shot explosion against Iowa in Sunday’s final was can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it riveting. And the Hawkeyes’ sensational Caitlin Clark will be back in Iowa City next season. Back up that NIL bread truck. …

White Sox center fielder Luis Robert robbed the Astros’ Kyle Tucker on Saturday with a leaping catch at the center-field wall that instantly was hailed on social media as a defensive-play-of-the-year candidate.

Then Robert robbed Tucker again with an even better play on Sunday, ranging approximately 1.4 miles to his right and, well, just look it up already if you haven’t seen it.

Has anyone ever been awarded a Gold Glove the first week of April? …

I’m no coach, but if I’m Billy Donovan, I keep dialing up that game plan where the Bulls outscore the other guys 40-16 in the third quarter like they did against the Grizzlies on Sunday. No charge for the brilliant idea — this one’s on me.

THIS YOU GOTTA SEE

Giants at White Sox (2:10 p.m. Monday, NBCSCH+): Of all the things that were wrong about the Sox in 2022, a seven-games-under-.500 record at Guaranteed Rate Field probably was the most galling. The home opener is opportunity No. 1 to turn that around.

NCAA final: San Diego State vs. UConn (8:20 p.m. Monday, Ch. 2): Who can even remember the last time interest in a men’s title game was so low? Something tells us the Aztecs and Huskies will play like this one’s a big deal anyway.

Hawks at Bulls (7 p.m. Tuesday, NBCSCH+): It’s a big game for play-in tournament positioning. Wait, is there such a thing as a big game for play-in tournament positioning?

ONLY BECAUSE YOU ASKED

From Karin, via email: “With so many ‘blue bloods’ being eliminated early in this year’s tournament by heretofore ‘throw-in’ teams, isn’t it time to do away with the ‘major’ and ‘mid-major’ designations?”

I’d say you’re on to something, but here are the last four men’s champions to come from outside the traditional powerhouse conferences: UConn (American) in 2014, UNLV (Big West) in 1990, Louisville (Metro) in 1980 and Marquette (independent) in 1977. UConn is back in the Big East, so only the Mountain West’s San Diego State can add to that puny list on Monday. Sorry if my answer is a major letdown.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

LaMarcus Aldridge: You’d think he could’ve at least given a heads-up to the Bulls — who were kind enough to draft him, after all — before announcing his retirement.

The XFL: If you’re not watching it, you don’t know what you’re missing. Hey, don’t look at me — I have no idea what you’re missing and plan to keep it that way.

The Tigers: They’re 0-3 with a minus-18 run differential. Other than that, they’re off to a rip-roaring start.

In-game betting: Does anyone else miss the days when in-game watching was enough?

GarPax: Yeah, yeah, Aldridge retired. You can come out of hiding now. Better yet, don’t.

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