Steve Fisher and his San Diego State staff do their homework before they see recruits, like all good coaches do.

They know players' backgrounds, playing styles and outside interests. And then, when they're visiting recruits at their homes, Fisher will often ask for another tidbit of information, something that hits close to home for him.

" 'What classes do you like?' – that's what we say to them," Fisher says. " 'Do you like it because you're good at it? What is it you have struggles with?' Invariably, math will come up on one side or the other.

"Well, I'm a math teacher. 'I can help you with that on the road,' I say. 'I can stay one step ahead of the teacher with you. I can be a good asset.' We laugh about that."

But he's not kidding. Xavier Thames, a SDSU senior guard in the midst of a breakout season, can vouch for that. "He helped me with my math class my first year," Thames says, laughing. "He knows his stuff."

Fisher started his coaching career at Rich East High in Park Forest, Ill., back in the 1970s. There, he doubled as a math teacher – something he enjoyed and something that's stuck with him during his long career in college basketball, which has taken him all the way from Western Michigan to Michigan to San Diego State.

"Coaching is teaching," Fisher, now 68, says. "Our classroom is our (basketball) building. We're going to help them get better, but we're also going to look after them the way a mom and a dad would want us to look after them. They won't like everything we do or say. But we're going to do what we think is in their best interest.

"From that standpoint, the teacher in all of us comes out by the way we do things and how we relate to them."

Teaching ties have helped occasionally with recruiting and, both directly and indirectly, with the makeup of this 2013-14 Aztec team. SDSU is 21-1 and ranked No. 5 in the latest USA TODAY Sports coaches poll – after losing its two leading scorers, Jamaal Franklin (to the NBA) and Chase Tapley (to graduation).

SDSU forward Josh Davis, a graduate student transfer from Tulane who's averaging nine points and 11 rebounds per game this season, said Fisher bonded with his mother over a shared background when he visited her last spring; Davis' mother had also taught math for years.

Aztecs junior forward J.J. O'Brien's mother, Cathy, teaches sixth grade math and science at Etiwanda Intermediate school in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. The mother of Thames, the Aztecs' leading scorer with 18.1 points per game, was a longtime preschool teacher in the Sacramento area. (Angie Thames taught her son, too.)

The similar backgrounds are simply a coincidence. But O'Brien believes that the trend might still mean something.

"I think that says a little bit of something about our team, our players," O'Brien says. "Teachers' kids are always well-behaved kids, the ones who get good grades. You can't be a teacher's kid and be messing up. I think that kind of says something about the discipline of our team."

Thames agrees, adding, "You can't be a bad student if your mom is a teacher. She'll get on you."

That discipline O'Brien mentioned shows up quite clearly in the Aztecs' commitment to defense. SDSU ranks ninth in defensive efficiency, holding opponents to just 91.4 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom.com.

Thames, O'Brien and Davis all transferred here from somewhere else, and all three say that the defensive intensity and emphasis at SDSU is unlike anything they'd experienced. Early-season practices were so grueling and defense-oriented, Thames joked that players had such trouble scoring, he wondered if the Aztecs' offense was bad.

"If you want playing time, you've got to play defense," Thames says. "We take a lot of pride in our defense. Offense will come, as long as you get stops."

He's right. The offense has come, and a lot of it has come from him. Thames, a 6-3 guard who played through back pain last year, is now fully healthy and says he "can do things I wanted to do last year that I really couldn't do because of my back. I was kind of afraid to go in there, get contact."