Honolulu, HI – The third-ranked Arizona Wildcats face one of their toughest challenges of the season, as they contend with the 17th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs in the title tilt of the Diamond Head Classic on Christmas Day.
Off to a spectacular 11-0 start, the Wildcats have beaten up on some soft competition in the early going, but the team was taken to task on Sunday when it topped a surprising Miami squad, 69-50, in the semifinals of this annual event. With the victory two days ago, the 200th in the career of head coach Sean Miller, Arizona is now 19-9 all-time in games played in the state of Hawaii.
As for the Aztecs, since their setback against nationally-ranked Syracuse in the season opener, the team has been piling up the wins, 11 in all. There have been a couple of close calls though, such as the team's 62-55 triumph over Indiana State on Sunday in order to advance to this championship matchup.
In addition to extending their current win streak to 11 games, tied for third- longest in program history, the Aztecs have also won 24 consecutive outings during the month of December.
The Wildcats lead the all-time series with San Diego State by a count of 20-7, although the Aztecs won the most recent meeting last season by a score of 61-57 on the road. This is the first time since 1945 that the teams are clashing on a neutral floor.
The Aztecs started off a bit sluggish against Indiana State on Sunday, shooting just 39.3 percent from the floor, including 2-of-9 behind the 3-point line in the first half, but late in the second frame the squad kept its distance with key free-throw shooting in order to claim the seven-point win. Jamaal Franklin, who finished 9-of-11 at the charity stripe, registered a double-double with 19 points and 15 rebounds, adding three assists for the victors. Also scoring in double figures were Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames with 13 and 12 points, respectively. Aside from his mere 25.5 percent shooting behind the 3-point line over the course of his 11 appearances, there's little that Franklin cannot do, from leading the team in scoring (17.9 ppg) and rebounding (9.9 rpg) to also stepping up with 36 assists, 18 steals and 12 blocked shots. Tapley (15.5 ppg) and Thames (10.5 ppg) are both shooting better than 40 percent beyond the arc, which has helped the squad to outscore the opposition by more than 15 ppg.
Outside of their 16 turnovers on Sunday, the Wildcats seemed to be on the right track as they took down Miami by 19 points. Mark Lyons logged 19 points and four assists, followed by Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Parrom, who played just 21 minutes off the bench, also collected eight rebounds for the program, second to Kaleb Tarczewski who ripped down 13 boards to go along with his eight points. Because of Tarczewski the team held a huge 46-20 advantage on the glass, his presence in the paint helping to hold the Hurricanes to just 36.5 percent shooting from the floor, including 5-of-19 behind the three-point line. The leading scorer for the Wildcats six times already this season, Lyons is producing 13.8 ppg and is now tied with Nick Johnson (12.8 ppg) for the team lead in assists with 35. In the case of Johnson, a 43.2 percent shooter beyond the arc, he has also shown quick hands at the defensive end with his team-best 28 steals. Because of that sort of defensive pressure, Arizona has been able to hold the opposition to just 58.5 ppg.
What figures to be a defensive struggle, seeing as how the Aztecs are giving up only 57.1 ppg at the moment, this is a fitting climax to a day of college basketball that is focused solely on this single tournament. As well as Franklin might play, the Wildcats showed on Sunday that they can pick up strong contributions from their bench and that could make all the difference in this meeting.