Arizona vs. San Diego State II: We Really Hope You Like Defense
When Sean Miller's Wildcats went into Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State back in November, it certainly wasn't an offensive barnburner, but it wasn't exactly the 45-43 battle that you'd expect if you knew how each team would play over the following three months either.
Arizona shot a solid 44.6 percent the field and built a 14-point lead after 30 minutes, but Xavier Thames and the Aztecs got hot down the stretch before eventually falling, 69-60.
That was a lifetime ago, though.
Since that matchup, Arizona has lost Brandon Ashley, subsequently handing many of his minutes over to defensive stalwart Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And Jeff Fisher's squad now gets significant contributions from Dwayne Polee and Aqeel Quinn, neither of whom were used during that Sweet 16 prequel.
More athletes, more defense.
Currently, Arizona ranks first in America in effective field-goal percentage defense (subscription required) at 42.2 percent and second in points allowed per possession (0.87). SDSU is eighth and third, respectively.
Here's a look at everything you need to know about this tantalizing defensive clash.
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Date: Thursday, March 27, 2014
Time: 10:17 p.m. ET (depending on the ending of Baylor vs. Wisconsin)
Location: Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
Live Stream: March Madness Live
San Diego State Player to Watch: Xavier Thames
Defensively, the Aztecs are a cohesive, athletic unit of five players working as one. They boast impressive size, with four starters standing at 6'7" or taller, and they extend their pressure to the three-point line, communicate and move help to the ball extremely well.
Offensively, however, things aren't quite as pretty. Thames leads the team in scoring with 17.4 points per game, while the next highest scorer is Winston Shepard at 11.7. Moreover, during the last eight games, the Washington State transfer has poured in 20.5 per contest, which is just barely less than Shepard and Polee—the team's second and third options—have averaged combined (21.3).
In the 63-44 third-round win over North Dakota State, Thames was at the center of more than 71 percent of San Diego State's offense, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Xavier Thames scored or assisted on more points by himself (45) than the entire North Dakota State team scored (44).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 23, 2014
It tends to turn into a one-man show for the Aztecs on offense, and if they are going to beat Arizona, it's very likely going to take another superhuman, 30-plus-point performance from Thames.
But if anyone is capable of such a feat against Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell, it's probably the senior.
"That kid had a couple moves where, well, put it this way, we don't have anybody that can simulate it in practice," NDSU coach Saul Phillips said after Thames torched the Bison, via the Los Angeles Times' Chris Dufresne.
Not many people do.
It's all about ball screens for Thames. If he is able to come off of a pick and get a step going towards the hoop, it's all over for defenders. He is the deadliest mid-range scorer in America, but he can also get to the cup, draw a foul or find an open teammate.
He can get hot from the outside, but Thames is most dangerous working inside the arc—and that makes this matchup against Arizona's pack-line defense, which is second in the country in two-point field-goal percentage defense (subscription required), extremely compelling.
Considering the matchup and the inconsistency around him on offense, Thames is quite possibly the most important player in the Sweet 16.
Arizona Player to Watch: Aaron Gordon
Everyone loves to compare super athletic freshman Aaron Gordon to the Los Angeles Clippers' own trampoline-jumper Blake Griffin. And when the youngster does things like this, it's easy to see why:
But Gordon is vital because of the impact he makes on the defensive end.
Yes, that same athleticism makes him a good rim protector, but again, it goes beyond that. Gordon is incredibly versatile on defense, capable of bodying up someone in the post, hedging-and-recovering on a screen, locking up someone on the perimeter (like this play against point guard Kyle Anderson) or playing the passing lanes.
As Utah Jazz radio announcer David Locke noted, there is far more to Gordon than his Tigger-like bounciness:
Aaron Gordon plays a stunningly smart game for a freshman. Always in right place, plays angles, sees lanes.— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) March 24, 2014
The Wildcats can be inefficient on offense when they are forced into a half-court game. But when their defense creates transition opportunities, they become practically unstoppable. Just ask Gonzaga.
And Gordon is at the center of that.
Go back to the November matchup between these two teams. Gordon had three steals and two blocks, which created eight points, mostly in transition. Against the Zags in the third round, Gordon had four steals, which turned into four points and a missed open three-pointer by Nick Johnson.
The freshman phenom may be a human highlight reel, but his ability to defend, force turnovers and cause bad shots, which all help get the Wildcats into the open court, is crucial.
McConnell is also important in that facet.
Who ya got?
This is going to be a battle, but Arizona's defensive backcourt of Johnson and McConnell will be able to slow down Thames enough to advance to the Elite Eight.
Arizona 65, San Diego State 58