A couple of programs hoping to record their first-ever wins in the NCAA Tournament square off in the second round in the West Regional, as the San Diego State Aztecs clash with the Northern Colorado Bears at the McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona.
The Bears, the 15th seed in this region, are making their first trip ever to the NCAA Tournament and arrive with a seven-game win streak in tow. It was only a decade ago that UNC was routinely facing off against the likes of Morningside, Augustana and St. Cloud State as conference foes and now the team is representing the Big Sky Conference as its tournament champion. Winners of 10 of the last 11 games overall, the Bears took care of both Northern Arizona (73-70) and Montana (65-60) in the Big Sky Tournament in order to earn the invitation to the party and sports a record of 21-10 overall at this stage of the season.
The Bears have the luxury of being familiar with their surroundings this week as they are back in the McKale Center where they played their first official road game of the 2010-11 campaign, although it did turn into a 93-70 loss against Arizona.
As for the second-seeded Aztecs, they put together a record-breaking season under head coach Steve Fisher, opening 2010-11 on a 20-game win streak before suffering a 71-58 loss at nationally-ranked BYU in Provo. The team posted a seven-game win streak after that as well, but again it was the Cougars who put an end to the party with an 80-67 decision in San Diego. Nevertheless, SDSU did get its revenge against BYU two weeks later with a 72-54 thrashing of the Cougars in the Mountain West Conference Tournament title game in Las Vegas. At 32-2, this is easily the most success campaign in the history of the San Diego State men's basketball program, and now the squad just needs to get over the hump in the NCAA Tournament where it has lost all six of its opportunities in the past. Last year, San Diego State made an early exit with a 62-59 loss to Tennessee in the first round.
In terms of the all-time series between these two programs, SDSU has won all but one of the previous six encounters. The Bears delivered a 62-56 win on the road three years ago for their lone triumph. The winner of today's battle will head back to the hardwood on Saturday versus the survivor of the Temple/Penn State matchup for the right to move on to the Sweet 16.
The name that immediately comes to mind when talking of Northern Colorado basketball is Devon Beitzel, who took his game to new heights this season en route to being named the Big Sky Conference Most Valuable Player. One of the top offensive performers in the nation this season, Beitzel led his team in scoring in 13 straight games to close out the campaign, putting up less than 20 points in only two of those outings as he finished with an average of 21.4 ppg. Not only did he shoot 47.9 percent from the floor, Beitzel also connected on 38.4 percent of his three-point tries and was one of the most deadly shooters at the free-throw line this season at 90.3 percent. Also having a strong season was Neal Kingman who made himself into an all-conference performer as well with his 10.6 ppg and 4.4 rpg. Chris Kaba is responsible for another 9.5 ppg, although he somehow found a way to shoot only 37.6 percent from the floor overall, yet 43.3 percent out on the perimeter for a team that generated 72.2 ppg over the course of 31 games.
Of the five players in the starting lineup for the Aztecs these days, four of them earned some level of all-conference recognition this season and for good reason. Take Kawhi Leonard who, despite his sophomore status, made the All-MWC First Team with averages of 15.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in 2010-11. Already Leonard, who was also named to the MWC All-Defensive Team, has 39 career double-doubles with the Aztecs, placing him second on the program's all-time list after only two seasons. This year he logged 22 double-doubles, which was fourth-most in the country. As long as he stays near the basket and doesn't stretch himself out too much on offense, Leonard can be as dominant as any player at his position. D.J. Gay, who also earned First Team All-MWC honors, has been a dynamo for coach Fisher having played in all 137 games for the school since stepping on campus, his 103 wins being the most of any player in history. A finalist for the Cousy Award, Gay (11.2 ppg) is the one who manages the action on the floor, while guys like Malcolm Thomas (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Billy White (9.9 ppg) bang around on the inside.
Certainly the Bears have a great story to tell for this season, but San Diego State simply can't be caught off guard in this meeting and is far too strong in the paint for UNC to get the Aztecs off their game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: San Diego State 79, Northern Colorado 64