SAN DIEGO (AP) -- This was supposed to be a transition year for San Diego State's basketball team.
The way most people envisioned it, the Aztecs would bide their time between their Sweet Sixteen run of 2011 and the arrival of a big recruiting class next season.
That expected drop-off never happened.
Steve Fisher has built the program to the point that not only are the Aztecs back in the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, but they received their first-ever at-large bid. The No. 6 seed in the Midwest, the Aztecs will face North Carolina State on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
The Aztecs lost four starters, including Kawhi Leonard to the NBA, from the team that went a school-record 34-3 and lost to eventual national champion Connecticut in the regional semifinals last year.
SDSU bounced back by sharing the regular-season Mountain West Conference title with New Mexico, then reaching the tournament championship game before losing to the Lobos.
"We're proud of the fact that our players proved to be what they thought and we felt they maybe could be -- a good team," Fisher said.
Leonard left after his sophomore year for the NBA. He was drafted by Indiana and immediately traded to San Antonio. The Aztecs also lost point guard D.J. Gay and forwards Billy White and Malcolm Thomas from the starting lineup. Big man Brian Carlwell, who'd been injured earlier in his career, was denied a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA.
Fisher knew it would be tough to get back to 20 victories. But behind Chase Tapley and a breakout season by sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin, they're back in the postseason.
"We're saying we've got a program and look, we've been to the NCAA tournament three years in a row," Fisher said. "Not only have we won 20 games for seven straight years, we've been to the big tournament for three consecutive years. This year we earned our way, the first time ever an at-large berth. I think that speaks volumes for our players and for the way they competed this year in the program."
The Aztecs were playing for their third straight MWC conference tournament title and automatic NCAA berth when they were overwhelmed by New Mexico.
Still, an at-large berth was something to celebrate.
"We're a whole new team, a team with a different outlook and people looking at us differently," senior forward Tim Shelton said. "A lot of people didn't think we'd be here so it goes to show that we've worked hard and we deserve to be here."
Franklin went from making no starts last season to being named the MWC Player of the Year.
"He worked," said Fisher, who led Michigan to the national title in 1989. "I do think he benefited so much from getting in here and finding out that there are a lot of good athletes in high school. He went from football -- he was a very good football player -- to basketball to being a terrific track athlete. He never did anything other than in-season. He played AAU ball, but all you do in AAU ball is play.
"He found out, 'Hey, these guys have better skills and fundamentals than me; I may be able to jump higher and run faster, but they know how to play and they're better players.' So he worked on his game. And Kawhi had a good influence. He watched Kawhi stay late and work on his shot. And Jamaal did that," Fisher said.
Franklin is averaging 17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds.
"He's got amazing work ethic," Shelton said. "He's just got that drive. He's got that mentality of, 'You're not going to be better than me at this.' He's self-motivated, self-driven. He's very passionate about the game, loves his teammates, does things for us, but also does things for himself."
Franklin was reprimanded by the MWC for making an obscene gesture during the conference tournament championship game Saturday night. Franklin apologized on Sunday, saying it was directed at a heckling New Mexico fan who was using a racial slur.
Fisher said there likely will be some internal discipline, but that Franklin will start against the Wolfpack.
"He got a public reprimand from the Mountain West Conference, just like I did a year ago. But his was deserved," Fisher said to laughter at a news conference. "I hope I don't get one for that."
Fisher was reprimanded last year for criticizing Wyoming for firing coach Heath Schroyer during the season.
The Aztecs are excited to see how they'll fare against a team from a marquee conference. NC State is coming off a close, contentious loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals.
None of the Wolfpack's players have been to the tournament before. But NC State did win four straight before losing to North Carolina, so the Aztecs know it's going to be a tough game.
Until last year's run, the Aztecs had never won a game in the NCAA tournament.
Now they'd like to add to their tally.
"I think in order for us to be successful in this tournament, we're going to have to play really, really, really good basketball, and we're going to have to do it on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor," Fisher said. "We can't have long lapses where we don't score. We can't have breakdowns where we let them score five or six times, and we've done that."
Can the Aztecs go as far as they did last year?
"Our margin for error is a lot less than a year ago but we're good enough to play with and beat anybody," Fisher said. "Can we? Sure. We have to play very efficient basketball, and we've done that for stretches."