UCLA vs. FLORIDA HOW TO WATCH AND GAME INFO
WHAT: South Regional Semifinal
WHO: 4-seed San Diego State Aztecs vs. 1-seed Arizona Wildcats
WHEN: Thursday, March 27 10:17 ET/7:17 PT
WHERE: Honda Center; Anaheim, Calif.
TV/STREAMING: TBS/March Madness Live
HOW THEY GOT HERE
San Diego State (Mountain West at-large)
• Round of 64: 73-69 (OT) vs. No. 13 New Mexico State
• Round of 32: 77-60 vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
Arizona Wildcats (Pac-12 at-large)
• Round of 64: 68-59 vs. No. 16 Weber State
• Round of 32: 84-61 vs. No. 8 Gonzaga
This is the second meeting between Arizona and San Diego State this season and eighth encounter since the 2006-’07 season. In that time, once perpetually downtrodden San Diego State has become consistently solid. The Aztecs are trying to plant their flag into the territory Arizona has occupied with UCLA for the last 25 years as the premier Western college basketball programs.
To that end, the Arizona-San Diego State series is a burgeoning rivalry, thus more than an Elite Eight bid is the on the line Thursday night in Anaheim, where both teams will have considerable fan support.
For San Diego State, this is the program’s ultimate opportunity to plant that flag. A win would mark the Aztecs’ first in the Sweet 16, and doing so against one of the programs they’re attempting to join would have particular significance.
For Arizona, Thursday is one step in a weekend-long effort to exorcise demons. One is that dubious moniker as the “Best Coach to Never Reach A Final Four” following Sean Miller (h/t Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg).
Miller reached Elite Eights at Xavier (2008) and Arizona (2011) but fell just shy of the Final Four both times. This is Miller’s best team yet, even without talented forward Brandon Ashley, who has been out with a broken foot since Feb. 1.
The Wildcats were bounced from the second weekend in three straight trips to Anaheim: 1998 (vs. Utah); 2003 (vs. Kansas); and 2011 (vs. UConn).
Arizona won their first meeting at San Diego State, but that was one week into the season before the Aztecs were established as one of the best defensive groups in the nation. They rank No. 7 in adjusted defense per KenPom.com and have not allowed an opponent to reach 70 points since Jan. 12.
San Diego State’s defensive intensity is fueled by length and depth. Head coach Steve Fisher cycles through big and athletic bodies like 6-foot-8 forwards Winston Shepard and Josh Davis, 6-foot-10 Skyler Spencer, and has perimeter size in 6-foot-5 Dakari Allen.
Arizona counters with its own bigs, 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-foot-8 Aaron Gordon, two keys to the Wildcats’ top-ranked defense.
No one will be as important to the defensive effort as Arizona guard Nick Johnson, however. He draws Xavier Thames, San Diego State’s explosive veteran guard. But Johnson said per ASAPSports.com that containing Thames takes a total team effort.
“We just have to, myself, T.J. [McConnell], Gabe [York], Jordin [Mayes], and even the bigs, he likes to use ball screens. We have to make his job hard. Not give him any easy looks and just hope to contain him,” he said.
Thames did most of his damage (19 points) in the November meeting in the second half of a game Arizona controlled until late in the second half. San Diego State got to the foul line for 29 free-throw attempts.
Similar fortune drawing whistles could be critical for the Aztecs. Arizona big men Ashley, Gordon and Tarczewski all piled up four personals in the previous meeting. With no Ashley in the lineup, Miller’s options should Gordon or Tarczewski get in trouble are limited. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson plays bigger than 6-foot-6 and has been a star of the Wildcats’ tournament thus far, but there’s little else available on the Arizona bench.