San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher gathered his team around before tip-off of their NCAA tournament opening round matchup against New Mexico State. As seen in SDSU’s Confidential Video–“We’re Advancing”–Fisher is heard telling his team, “Everybody in the world is watching…some teams will become house hold names and somebody on those teams will never be forgotten…why not us?”
Why not? For those unfamiliar with the Aztecs, they were picked by conference media before the season to finish in fourth place in the Mountain West after the loss of Jamaal Franklin to the NBA, and key players Chase Tapley, James Rahon and DeShawn Stephens to graduation. They were a team with just two returning starters, including Xavier Thames, the lone returning senior and leader of the Aztecs. He was joined by newcomer senior Josh Davis, a graduate transfer from Tulane, and together, they kept SDSU a relevant team. They’ve now returned to the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season.
In just the second game of the season, the Aztecs took their first loss at home on Nov. 14, falling 69-60 to the Arizona Wildcats, who were ranked No. 5 at the time in the USA Today Coaches Poll. After that loss, SDSU took off and went on an outrageous 20-game winning streak that no one saw coming, which included wins against ranked opponents Creighton and Marquette as they eventually captured the DIRECTV Wooden Legacy tournament championship.
During their 20-game winning streak, if you weren’t too busy watching the NFL Playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 5, the Aztecs did something that hasn’t been done before since 2006: They defeated the Kansas Jayhawks on the road at the Allen Fieldhouse, snapping the Jayhawks’ 68-home game winning streak against non-conference opponents. Matter of fact, SDSU ended up being the only team this year to defeat Kansas at the Allen Fieldhouse, which is arguably the toughest arena to play in for any visiting team.
Sure, they may be known to play in a mid-major conference, but after capturing the MWC regular season title, the Aztecs went from being unranked at the beginning of this season to finishing ranked No. 11 in the final USA Today Coaches Poll. They earned a No. 4 seed in the West region in this NCAA tournament, and will seek revenge against No. 1 seeded Arizona from their first loss this season.
Bragging rights will be on the line as SDSU will be coming in with a “Why Not Us?” mentality after having to earn their respect all season from the national media.
It could be fair to say that this Sweet Sixteen rematch will determine who’s really the top dog of college basketball in the West. The Aztecs want revenge as the Wildcats will look to hold their ground as the favorites coming in. There are plenty of new factors that could play a significant part in changing the outcome of tonight’s rematch.
For plenty of SDSU fans, they’re glad to be playing the Wildcats again for many reasons. They defeated UCLA last year in the Wooden Classic, a Pac-12 school at the same venue where tonight’s game will be held–the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. They also defeated Marquette to win the Wooden Legacy tournament over Thanksgiving weekend at the Honda Center–this venue has shown to be kind to the Aztecs as of late. Being just a 1.5-hour drive up from San Diego, California, you can bet there will be a ton of black and red in the building, but the feel of homecourt advantage won’t be as easy the way Arizona fans travel too.
Breaking down these two teams, everyone knows that the Wildcats are led by arguably the best college basketball duo in the West with Nick Johnson, a Naismith National Player of the Year candidate, and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Aaron Gordon. But the loss of Arizona’s starting power forward Brandon Ashley could play a factor as he went down after 22 games this season.
Without Ashley’s presence, the Wildcats may be battling for rebounds against Josh Davis, who absolutely eats glass. Davis is averaging 9.9 rebounds per game this season, to Gordon’s seven for Arizona.
Fisher also explained how San Diego State will unleash a secret weapon in junior forward Dwayne Polee II, who Fisher called the team’s sixth starter. Backup junior guard Aqeel Quinn will also play to take the load off Thames, SDSU’s leading scorer, to give him a rest as both Polee II and Quinn did not play in their first meeting with Arizona. Both players have contributed a ton to the Aztecs’ success this season.
So which SDSU team will show up? A team that got worked by conference rival New Mexico on the road, scoring a season low 44 points, a team that also suffered a loss on the road to Wyoming? Or, will the Aztecs look like the No. 11 team in the country giving the Wildcats all they can handle a second time around? Expect a good game–a close, defensive minded game in this wild-wild West showdown from two of the top college teams out West.
With these new factors, you may want to consider not being surprised if SDSU does indeed upset Arizona this time around. If the Aztecs defense can contain Johnson and Gordon, and if Thames plays another game like he did previously against North Dakota State, going for 30 points, there’s a light of hope for it to happen.
After completing a remarkable season that no one saw coming besides probably Fisher and his team, the national media needs to take more notice of San Diego State. After having reached five straight NCAA tournaments, better believe they’re a program on the rise and deserving of more national attention. Their 31-4 record with quality wins this season should speak for itself.
Fisher’s success with SDSU’s underrated program may be coming from three words he’s been telling his team all year: “Why not us?”
Can SDSU beat Arizona?
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