San Diego State is still alive in the Sweet 16, but they face a very real test Thursday when they take on Arizona. The Aztecs have their favorable seeding and an inconsistent Oklahoma team to thank for getting this far.
It took overtime, and 43 total minutes of playing time from senior guard Xavier Thames, for SDSU to put away No. 13 seed New Mexico State in the first round. On wearied legs, Steve Fisher’s team was happy to see No. 12 seed North Dakota State in the second round instead of the higher-seeded Oklahoma Sooners. Thames played the hero again in the second round, scoring 30 points in 35 minutes while the rest of the starting lineup scored 13 points combined.
Much like San Diego State, Arizona has made it this far with stellar defense. Thursday’s game will undoubtedly be a hard-fought win for the victor, but Arizona’s the clear favorite thanks to an offensive diversity that the Aztecs can’t match.
During the regular season, the Wildcats had four different players average 10 or more points per game, and six players who averaged at least six shots per game. In their win against Gonzaga Sunday, Arizona had five players score in double-digits and six with at least seven field goal attempts. The Aztecs had two different players average 10 or more points per game this season and five who averaged at least six shots per game. In their win against North Dakota State, SDSU had two players score in double-digits and two that had at least 7 field goal attempts.
What little offense SDSU had outside of Thames has been disappearing. Namely, Winston Shepard still hasn’t shown up to the tournament. Let’s compare his season averages with what he’s done in the first two rounds:
Season: 26.6 minutes, 11.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals
Tournament: 21.0 minutes, 5.0 points, 0.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0 steals
Shepard has been the team’s “second banana” all season long, the Robin to Thames’ Batman. Yet, under the bright lights, he has shrunk and put even more pressure on “X” to carry the Aztecs on his back.
Following their close win over New Mexico State, here is what I wrote about this year’s team:
Let’s be real. The Aztecs are lucky they were facing a No. 13 seed, and they’re up against No 12 seed North Dakota State on Saturday. But they’re not likely to win this year’s NCAA Tournament for the same reason they couldn’t win the Mountain West Championship: offense.
If anything, their blowout win over the Bison on Sunday has made me even less optimistic about the team’s chances against Arizona. Against a weaker opponent, Thames was the only player who could score. Now, an opponent with a strong defense can focus its attack on Thames and give the rest of the team a chance to hit open shots. While Dwayne Polee has been fantastic for the last month, he’s probably not the guy to carry a team to the Elite Eight.
The Aztecs have a chance to win. Every team has a chance. Their defense should be good enough to keep them from getting blown out, and someone (Matt Shrigley, perhaps?) can get hot and start draining three-point shots. Superior coaching and a bit of luck has turned the tide in the tournament before, and it can again, but the two wins the Aztecs have picked up so far don’t change the fact that they are flawed at their very core. If anything, they prove it.