San Diego State and Arizona should get used to playing each other, because this growing rivalry of Western teams is going to continue along with the success of both of these college basketball programs.
The Arizona Wildcats are the favorite, coming in as the No. 1 seed in the West region. But the San Diego State Aztecs, the No. 4 seed, showed earlier this season that they can compete with an Arizona team at full strength. The Wildcats have won the last two games against the Aztecs but are just 2-2 in their last four encounters.
Both teams have gotten better over the course of the season and are playing in stride for this match-up.
How Arizona Could Win
Points in Transition: The Wildcats are an athletic team that can turn defense into offense for quick points. T.J. McConnell is a true point guard who leads the team with 5.5 assists per game. Aaron Gordon is a big man who can run and finish at the rim, but so can Nick Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Three-Point Shooting: The Arizona guards were just 1-for-9 on three-point shots when these teams met earlier. Now that they are starting three guards, Johnson, McConnell and Gabe York will need to hit shots from the perimeter to loosen up the Aztecs defense and provide scoring punch.
Stop the X: By now, every Aztecs opponent is focused on stopping Xavier Thames, but he is averaging 26.5 points and five assists per game in the tournament. This is up dramatically from his season average of 17.4 points and 3.3 assists. The proverbial "putting the team on his back" applies here.
How San Diego State Could Win
Josh Davis 2.0: When the teams met earlier, graduate transfer Josh Davis was playing in just his second game as an Aztec. And frankly, it showed. He contributed just two points and four rebounds and looked out of place on the court. Over the course of the season, Davis has had nine double-doubles and 18 games with double-digit rebounds. With Brandon Ashley out, he will have more space in the middle to do his work.
Bench Scoring: The Aztecs bench contributed eight points last time. The Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year, Dwayne Polee II, played zero minutes. Polee is averaging 10.6 points per game in the last 15 games and 15 points per game in the tournament. Matt Shrigley will need to contribute from the perimeter as well.
Free Throw Line: One of the keys to San Diego State's success is getting to the free throw line and making more free throws than their opponents take. This will be a tall order against the Wildcats. But in the UCLA win over Arizona, the Bruins made 15 more free throws than the Wildcats, so it can be done.
This should be a close, tightly contested game. The Aztecs will have a home court advantage as the game is played in Anaheim, but No. 1 seeds are hard to defeat no matter where the game is held.