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San Diego is Basketball City USA

The city's Big 5 are doing something that programs in more acclaimed basketball cities haven’t lately—they’re winning
San Diego City College men's basketball, Knights, 2024
Courtesy of San Diego City College

It’s not often a community college team sets the pace in a big city hoops scene—one that’s increasingly relevant at the national level—but that’s exactly what the San Diego City College Knights are doing.

Since 2004, the Knights have won eight conference championships and 11 postseason tournament berths. They’ve appeared in two state finals and won one of them in 2017. Dozens of alumni have been awarded scholarships to Division I and II programs, and several have played professionally around the world.

Along with SDSU, USD, UCSD, and PLNU, the SDCC Knights are one of a handful of local basketball teams worth watching right now.

Sure, San Diego’s Big 5 will never be considered as big as teams from cities like LA or Cincinnati, not with Division II and community college teams in the mix, but they have done something recently that programs in other, more acclaimed basketball cities haven’t: they’ve won.

SDCC’s run started two decades ago when head coach Mitch Charlens took over a program that the previous year won seven games playing in a high school gym. (No offense, San Diego High.) 

“We were crazy enough and arrogant enough to think we could win right away,” Charlens said. “And we did.” With nine regular season games left this year, Charlens’ average of 20.5 wins-per-season doesn’t seem likely to decrease. 

As the Knights were wrapping up their game at Miramar College, the San Diego State University men’s squad was warming up for its own conference showdown. Jaedon LeDee would go on to pace the team’s victory over Nevada with an overstuffed stat sheet—22 points, 12 rebounds, three steals, and a block. Fellow senior Lamont Butler did yeoman’s work, chipping in four rebounds, three assists, and two steals to go along with his 10 points.

“Our defense and rebounding were the difference in the game, and that’s Aztec basketball,” head coach Brian Dutcher told the media after the game. 

The win also brought SDSU to 15-3 on the season, which feels like déjà vu. The Aztecs were 14-4 at this time last year, after Butler’s 19 points and two assists, steals, and rebounds fueled a conference win over Colorado State. 

Lamont Butler’s buzzer-beater led the Aztecs to their first National Championship game last year

“We hit a rhythm in the second half, got going, and our defensive pressure keyed it,” Dutcher said after that game. The Aztecs would go on to win 17 of their next 19, then Butler sent SDSU to the national championship with the shot of his life. By this point, you can set your watch to it—after a few early season losses, the Aztecs’ upperclassmen and the coach’s cliches are in top form come January. 

SDSU’s own run of excellence started under Dutcher’s predecessor, the legendary Steve Fisher, who in 2002 led the Aztecs to their first Mountain West Conference title and their first NCAA tournament appearance in 17 years. Six more conference championships and 11 tournament appearances would follow. Before last season’s NCAA final, Sports Illustrated anointed SDSU a “West Coast college basketball powerhouse,” as if Aztecs fans needed to be informed. 

But the same can be said for the city itself, which may be less apparent. 

In 2020, the UCSD men’s basketball team elevated to Division I. In all its wisdom, the NCAA prohibited the school from being eligible for the national championship tournament during a four-year “reclassification” period, but the Tritons decided to be good anyway. They are second in the Big West Conference with a 11-7 record, and only a LeDee buzzer-beater earlier this season prevented UCSD from upsetting its crosstown rival. 

In 2022, the University of San Diego hired Steve Lavin as its head men’s basketball coach. Lavin previously led blue blood programs in UCLA and St. Johns, and has eight NCAA tournament appearances to his name. Before a recent four-game skid, the Toreros were 10-5 and competitive in a West Coast Conference that regularly sends powerhouse Gonzaga to the NCAA tournament.

And last year, the Point Loma Nazarene men’s team went to the regional finals in the Division II championship tournament after winning the Pacwest Conference.

Truly, SD’s Big 5 are on a roll.

When asked what’s changed in the last twenty years to turn San Diego into a premier college basketball destination, Charlens thought for a moment, then told the story of Malcolm Thomas. 

Thomas starred at San Diego’s Crawford High, and after a year at Pepperdine returned home and played for City College in the 2008-09 season. After a standout season, he transferred to SDSU, where he played alongside program icon Kawhi Leonard and became one of the top shot blockers in school history. 

Thomas now plays professionally overseas, but to Charlens he was the first top recruit to “believe in City College,” a school that built itself a new gym and whose administration realized that winning matters. In effect, Thomas was the first local star to commit to a new era of San Diego basketball.

“We changed the narrative,” Charlens said

By Brendan Dentino

Brendan Dentino is a U.S. Navy veteran, writer, and public servant based in San Diego. He writes weekly about baseball and politics at Out in Left.

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