No. 4 San Diego St. Aztecs (29-4, 16-2 MWC) vs. No. 13 New Mexico State Aggies (26-9, 12-4 WAC)
Where: Spokane Arena, Spokane, Wash.
When: Thursday, March 20, 2014, 9:57 p.m. ET, 6:57 p.m. PT
Last meeting: These two teams haven't matched up since 2001 when the Aggies stomped the Aztecs 94-79 at NMSU. This will be the eighth meeting between the Aztecs and Aggies. SDSU owns the series advantage, four wins to NMSU's three.
This is the Aztecs' fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. They enter the Tournament on a somewhat low note, though, losing the MWC Tournament championship game to rival New Mexico. However, Coach Steve Fisher and his players moved on quickly and are excited to enter the West Region as a four-seed playing its best basketball of the year.
"We're feeling really confident," Dwayne Polee II said earlier this week. "Even though we had a tough loss, we're feeling confident about our games. That loss is in the past now, so we're just moving on. We're excited and ready for the match up."
This is the Aggies' third straight NCAA Tournament appearance. NMSU enters its matchup with SDSU after winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game against Idaho. The Aggies lost just one game in the last 10 in a tough overtime game at the regular season WAC champion Utah Valley. WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings will square off against MWC Player of the Year Xavier Thames--keep an eye on that matchup.
SDSU's key to victory: Surprisingly, SDSU's key to victory isn't to neutralize NMSU's big men Sim Bhullar (7'5", 355 lbs.), Tshilidzi Nephawe (6'10", 265 lbs.) and Renaldo Dixon (6'9", 215 lbs) who, by the way, occasionally man the paint at the same time. To win SDSU must neutralize Aggies' effective 3-point shooting (roughly 20% of NMSU's points came from beyond the arc). Josh Davis, Skylar Spencer, J.J. O'Brien and Winston Shepard are quick enough to front Bhullar and match up well against Nephawe and Dixon. However, to do so, these guys will have to spend a lot of time near the rim. Consequently, the perimeter will open up for 3-point marksman Kevin Aronis. Aronis shot about 44% from 3-range this year--49.4% during WAC play. At 6'3", Aronis is a big guard that can elevate from long range. Three-point shooters produce upsets, so the Aztecs need to flex their speed on Thursday to clog the paint and contest the 3-pointer. If they can do so, SDSU will win.
NMSU's key to victory: Normally teams would focus on defending Thames and limiting his production. As good as Thames has been for SDSU, I would say Polee has had the biggest positive impact as of late. As SDSU's "sixth starter" in the MWC Tournament, Polee netted 13.7 points, 3.7 boards and 2 steals per game en route to earning a spot on the All-MWC Tournament team. He's the first man to come off Fisher's bench and he often is part of the last unit on the floor. Other than Thames, Polee is the only Aztec that is just as much a threat from the outside as he is the inside. In his last five games, Polee has scored 26 points from inside the 3-point line, 24 from long range and eight from the charity stripe. If that's not a balanced threat, I don't know what is. Thames has shown that, despite the opponent's best efforts, he can still beat you nine times out of 10. Why not try neutralizing Polee, who's had just as much if not more of an impact lately? If the Aggies limit Polee to five points on Thursday, they have a shot.
Prediction: SDSU will handle the Aggies in its first 2014 NCAA Tournament game 72-55.