This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the San Diego State men's basketball team and veteran coach Steve Fisher.
The Aztecs lost four starters, including Kawhi Leonard to the NBA, from a school-record 34-3 team that lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in the NCAA regional semifinals last year.
But thanks to former Sacramento High star Chase Tapley, the Aztecs' only returning starter, and ex-Pleasant Grove standout Xavier Thames, San Diego State is back in the tournament for the third consecutive season, this time as an at-large team.
As the No. 6 seed in the Midwest, San Diego State (26-7) will face No. 11 North Carolina State (22-12) on Friday morning in Columbus, Ohio.
San Diego State shared the regular-season Mountain West Conference title with New Mexico before losing to the Lobos in the tournament championship game.
Credit Tapley and Thames for having big impacts.
Tapley went from role player to team leader in averaging 15.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and a team-high 59 steals playing 34 minutes a game. The 6-foot-3 guard made the All-Mountain West Conference second team.
The 6-3 Thames, who sat out last season after transferring from Washington State, replaced four-year starter D.J. Gay at point guard.
Thames leads the team in assists with 127 while averaging 10.3 points in 33.7 minutes. He made all-conference honorable mention.
Tapley, Thames, senior forward Tim Shelton, junior guard James Rahon and sophomore guard and Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin have helped fill the gap left by the departures of Leonard (now with the San Antonio Spurs), Gay, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas from last year's school breakthrough team.
Shelton credits Tapley's leadership and tenaciousness for helping to define this year's team, one that few expected to reach the NCAA tournament.
"It wouldn't be San Diego State without Chase Tapley," Shelton said in a team news conference on Monday. "His rÃ©sumÃ© at San Diego State so far has been phenomenal. He's an amazing player in terms of his growth, work ethic, and leadership ability. He's a big shot-maker and a big-time defender all around the board and everything you look for in a teammate."
When Tapley was being recruited by Fisher, one of the selling points was that he would be part of building something speical at the once basketball-challenged school.
Until last year's run, San Diego State had never won a game in the NCAA tournament.
Tapley will now play in his third consecutive NCAA tournament, and he says it's always special.
"For me, it's just a great experience to share with your teammates and with your coaching staff," Tapley said. "Growing up as a little kid and seeing it, to now finally being there, I just know what to expect with all of the festivities and stuff like that.
"When the lights come on, it's time to play. It's win or go home. I know that feeling of going there, losing the first game (62-59 to Tennessee in 2010), and then going to the Sweet 16. I just can't wait to get out there."