Denis Poroy/Associated Press
Road to the Sweet 16
Arizona: Beat No. 16 Weber State, 68-59; No. 8 Gonzaga, 84-61
San Diego State: Beat No. 13 New Mexico State, 73-69; No. 12 North Dakota State, 63-44
Players to Watch
Although athletic freshman Aaron Gordon supplies impressive dunks, junior guard Nick Johnson is typically the determining factor in whether Arizona wins or loses. Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and his all-around skills at both ends of the court made the Wildcats a consistently effective team.
It is no coincidence that some of his worst shooting games resulted in losses for the Wildcats. He went 1-of-12 in a loss to Cal, 5-of-20 in a loss to Arizona State and 4-of-12 in a loss to Oregon. Johnson scored 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting in the 69-60 victory over San Diego State earlier this season.
San Diego State
Point guard Xavier Thames knows Arizona pretty well. He played against the Wildcats twice in 2009-2010 as a Washington State freshman, and once in each of three seasons at San Diego State. He is 3-2 against the Wildcats, including the loss earlier this season. Thames was the Mountain West Player of the Year this season, and he has been the driving force in the Aztecs' two postseason wins.
He had 23 points in the opening win over New Mexico State and poured in 30 in the victory over North Dakota State, totally outplaying Bison point guard Taylor Braun. Despite those scoring outbursts, Thames' biggest asset is his defense.
What Makes the Matchup Special
This will be a defensive war, which may produce a low-scoring game but will thrill those who appreciate defensive excellence. San Diego State is second nationally in scoring defense, and Arizona is fifth.
Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, who turned 69 on March 24, knows something about success in the NCAA tournament. He coached Michigan to the national title in 1989, and he led the Wolverines Fab Five to the NCAA title game in 1992 and 1993. In 1992, Arizona coach Sean Miller was a senior point guard at Pittsburgh.
The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for a good portion of this season, starting 21-0, including the 69-60 victory at San Diego State on Nov. 14. But that win came when Arizona had Brandon Ashley, who suffered a broken foot in the Feb. 1 loss to Cal and was lost for the season.
These two teams, as well as UCLA and Stanford, represent the last hopes that a school located west of Kansas can win the NCAA title for the first time in 17 years.