Anaheim, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - Back home in the Golden State, the San Diego State Aztecs hit the floor at the Honda Center as they compete against the Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
The fourth seed in the West Region, the Aztecs are making just their second appearance all-time in the Sweet 16, having made it this far three years ago before losing to UConn (74-67). This year San Diego State, which is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year and 10th time overall, began with a 73-69 overtime affair versus New Mexico State in Spokane last week and then crushed North Dakota State over the weekend, 63-44.
Meanwhile the top-seeded Wildcats, NCAA Tournament champions back in 1997, are aiming to make the Elite Eight for the 10th time in program history. Last season Arizona head coach Sean Miller also had his squad make the list of the final 16 after defeating both Belmont and Harvard in Salt Lake City, before bowing to Ohio State, 73-70, in Los Angeles.
This time around the Wildcats, ranked first in the nation earlier in the campaign, took care of both Weber State (68-59) and Gonzaga (84-61) on San Diego State's home floor last week.
Arizona, which leads the all-time series by a mark of 22-7, won the matchup between the squads early in the regular season at Viejas Arena in San Diego by a 69-60 score. In that meeting, the last before the Aztecs went on a 20-game win streak, Nick Johnson led all scorers with 23 points for the Wildcats, while SDSU was paced by Xavier Thames and JJ O'Brien with 19 points apiece. The Aztecs shot only 36.0 percent from the floor.
The Wildcats came out on top in the only previous neutral site meeting, a one- point decision at the 2012 Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu.
The winner of this meeting will be back in action on Saturday versus the winner of the Baylor/Wisconsin matchup for the right to represent the region in the Final Four next week in Texas.
After struggling in the tournament opener against New Mexico State at Spokane Arena last Thursday, the Aztecs enjoyed a much smoother ride over the weekend as they crushed the Bison by 19 points. Thames led the way with 30 points, followed by Dwayne Polee with 15 off the bench, while Josh Davis reeled in a game-high 13 rebounds as SDSU won the rebounding battle, 38-27. North Dakota State had entered the meeting as the top field goal shooting team in the entire nation at 51.0 percent, but was held to a mere 31.9 percent by the Aztecs.
Thames, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, is clearly the floor leader for the Aztecs, averaging a team-best 17.4 ppg, with 115 assists and 59 steals. Winston Shepard checks in with another 11.7 ppg, but beyond those two, the San Diego State offense is very evenly balanced as the unit generates a modest 70.5 ppg. Clearly, it is the defense that gets much more attention as the team holds foes to just 38.3 percent shooting from the field, 28.5 percent behind the 3-point line and a mere 56.6 ppg.
The Wildcats were less than impressive in their close call against an upstart Weber State squad last week, but looked much more comfortable during the blowout win versus the Bulldogs, forcing Gonzaga into an unsightly 21 turnovers. Aaron Gordon led the attack with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists, his scoring matched by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Nick Johnson responded with 17 points of his own. Providing further offensive support were T.J. McConnell and Gabe York with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
While the Aztecs have Thames as their primary focal point, Arizona has a star of its own in Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. A starter in every game this season, Johnson (16.3 ppg) is a deadly force who can settle in behind the 3-point line or cut to the basket and use his athleticism to overwhelm opponents. Also taking some of the spotlight is Gordon (12.4 ppg), who has shown strength in the paint as one of the nation's premier freshmen.