Many questions surface when I think of the Sweet Sixteen matchup between the University of Connecticut Huskies and the San Diego State University Aztecs.
Can Kemba Walker continue to perform at a high level? Is San Diego State an overachieving mid-major, or a sleeping giant in a small conference? Will the young UConn supporting cast give Walker enough help when they face bigger expectations? Can the length and athleticism of San Diego State overshadow their lack of pure shooters?
All of these questions will be answered when these two teams take the court Thursday night. Depending on the answers, one of these teams will continue to steer its way one step closer to the coveted championship trophy in Houston.
Players to Watch
Kemba Walker, Guard, UCONN- This one is obvious. Averaging 23.5 points per game, Walker has been the backbone and anchor of this Huskie squad all season and one of the most electrifying players in the nation. After recently being named a finalist for the Naismith award, for the nation's best player, Walker will look to continue that dominance against a very athletic and well-coached Aztec team. One thing is for sure, Walker will see lockdown man to man defense from the Aztecs, but will he be up to the task? I wouldn't bet against Walker. Just ask the Pittsburgh Panthers or the Texas Longhorns.
Kawhi Leonard, Forward, SDSU- The scintillating and sensational sophomore for the Aztecs, Leonard may not be a household name, but trust me, he should be. Averaging 15.6 points per game to go along with 10.6 rebounds per game, Leonard is as athletic a force in the paint as you will find. He plays with a maniacal energy and uses his 6'7'' frame to gain an advantage over smaller players. Opposing teams frequently have to choose between the lesser of two evils when defending Leonard. Do you play a smaller man on him and give up strength for quickness or do you use a big body and allow Leonard to run by him in the open floor? Either way, Leonard is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams and will continue to be as long as the Aztecs continue to make a run.
Matchup to Watch
Billy White/Malcolm Thomas, Forwards, SDSU vs. Alex Oriakhi, Forward, UCONN- This will not be a battle for the faint of heart underneath the basket. The uber-athletic White and Thomas both average over ten points per game and combine for about 13 rebounds per game. Oriakhi averaged 9.6 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game on the interior for the Huskies in the rugged Big East. All three are very hard-working players that are intrinsic to their teams success in March. Whichever team comes out on top in this matchup will need their interior presence to control the glass and make sure their are no easy baskets inside for penetrating guards and no second chance baskets on three point attempts.
Keys to the Game
1. Rebounding- In a game which lacks pure shooting on offense for either team, rebounding will be a major factor. The aforementioned White and Thomas tandem down low for the Aztec will need help from all parties, including reserve center Brian Carlwell off the bench. Alex Oriakhi will need help against one of the best rebounding teams in the nation from role players such as Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, and Roscoe Smith. Chances are the team who wins the rebounding battle and gets second chances for their scorers will win this matchup Thursday night.
2. SDSU's backcourt- Led by four-year starting point guard D.J. Gay, the Aztec backcourt could be the biggest x-factor in this entire game. The athletic interior cannot be overstated enough for the Aztecs, but people may be understating the backcourt. Gay, averaging 11 points per game with 3.2 assists, is a pure point guard oozing experience and smarts while running the offense. Pairing with Gay in the backcourt is Chase Tapley, who, along with James Rahon off the bench, provide the potential instant offense this Aztec team can lack at times. Tapley averages almost nine points a game and Rahon averages over seven points off the bench, with both players shooting around 40% from behind the arc. If the Aztecs want to come out on top in this colossal matchup, these three players will have to play a larger than life role against the battle-tested Huskies.
3. Jeremy Lamb- If Kemba Walker is Batman, then Jeremy Lamb is surely Robin. The lanky 6'5'' freshman from Norcross, GA, averaged 10.5 points on the season and seemed to gain confidence as each game passed by. He got it done by slashing to the basket and using his length and athleticism and also by knocking down shots from the perimeter, averaging 35% from three-point land on the season. Lamb must continue his progression while being potentially matched up with Kawhi Leonard, a senior and gifted athlete. In order for UConn to come away with a victory Thursday night, Lamb must quell his jitters and score the basketball.
As hard as it is to pick against a player like Kemba Walker and a coach like Jim Calhoun, I am going with the San Diego State University Aztecs to take the cake in this one. The Aztec front line is too much for the young Huskies team to handle up front and the Huskies will finally wear down against a very athletic team. The Huskies will battle until the end and Walker will get his points, but the Aztecs win in the end, 65-61.