The Arizona Wildcats are used to experiencing heartbreak in Southern California.
In 2011 at the Staples Center, Washington Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas hit a “cold blooded” 3-pointer in overtime at the buzzer to win the Pac-12 Tournament over the Wildcats. Two weeks later in the Elite Eight, Arizona senior forward Jamelle Horne missed a potential game winning shot by a few inches versus the eventual national champion Connecticut Huskies at the Honda Center. Last season, Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross buried a late three pointer versus the Wildcats to send the Buckeyes to the Elite Eight.
The San Diego State Aztecs have experienced their own heartbreak against the Wildcats. Last year on Christmas Day in the Diamond Head Classic championship game, Nick Johnson made one of his signature blocks when he flew out of nowhere to swat Chase Tapley’s potential game winning layup off the backboard to secure a victory for the then-undefeated Wildcats. Earlier this season, the Cats defeated the Aztecs in a very close one in San Diego. It was a four-point game with 1:22 to go, but Aaron Gordon and Co. survived the scare and eventually won 69-60.
If there is one thing we as fans love more than anything, it is the rematch. The West’s top-seeded Wildcats face off against the fourth-seeded Aztecs at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA tonight at 7:17 PST. One team will experience heartbreak once again; one team will advance to the Elite Eight. Something’s gotta give.
The Aztecs have had a fantastic year. They are currently 31-4, and finished first in the Mountain West with a 16-2 record. After the Arizona loss in their second game of the season, they went on to win 20 straight, earning a ranking as high as fifth in the nation. They are led by Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames, who averages 17.4 points per game. Thames versus Nick Johnson is considered one of the best matchups of this round because they both won their Conference Player of the Year Award, as well as both being named to the All-Conference Defensive Team.
San Diego State does not have a player on the team taller than 6’10”, which means this needs to be a big game for Kaleb Tarczewski. The Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher is one of the best in all of college basketball. He coached the Michigan Wolverines before and during the “Fab Five” era, making three championship game appearances and cutting down the nets once. He will try to slow this game down and make Arizona play in the half-court offense. This is why Tarczewski will be an impact player so feed the big man!
The Wildcats are coming off one of their most impressive wins of the season in the round of 32 versus the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Arizona controlled the tempo the whole game, and it started to become a highlight show starring Gordon, Johnson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. If the Wildcats play with this same rhythm, it is going to be an extremely tough challenge for these Aztecs.
San Diego State barely survived a first round scare versus 13-seed New Mexico State, but then easily took care of 12th-seeded North Dakota State. The Wildcats got by No. 16 seed Weber State before their strong victory versus 8th-seeded Gonzaga. Obviously, this is going to be the biggest challenge both teams have faced this tournament.
This should be a very close game. Both teams are very familiar with each other and are going to play to their strengths and attack the other team’s weaknesses, which means free throw shooting is going to be critical in crunch time. That is not good news for either team because Arizona shoots 65% as a team and San Diego State shoots a combined 66%. Both teams need to get the ball in the hands of their star player down the stretch as Johnson shoots 77% for the Wildcats while Thames shoots 83% for the Aztecs.
No Mountain West team has ever made it to the Elite Eight and I predict that will remain true when the final buzzer sounds in the Honda Center. Between the outstanding freshman play of Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, as well as the leadership of Johnson and T.J. McConnell, the Wildcats are going to be too much. Prediction: 67-57, Cats win.
And always remember, “Nastiness is required.”