An epic season for the San Diego State Aztecs moves forward tonight as the team clashes with the Connecticut Huskies in the West Regional Semifinals of the 2011 NCAA Tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Back home in the Golden State, the second-seeded Aztecs have far exceeded the success of any season previous to 2010-11, standing at 34-2 and having finally won a game in the NCAA Tournament after showing a 0-6 record heading into the event. The Mountain West Conference Tournament champions, the Aztecs defeated Northern Colorado in the second round of the tourney last week with a 68-50 final in Tucson, but then needed double-overtime to dismiss a pesky Temple Owls group over the weekend, 71-64.
As for the third-seeded Huskies, they improved their record to 16-1 in their opening-round games in the NCAA Tournament since 1990 with their 81-52 romp over Bucknell at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. just days after UConn turned the Big East Conference on its ear by winning five games in five days in order to capture the tournament title in New York City. Head coach Jim Calhoun, who is in his 25th season with UConn, guided his group to a hard- fought 69-58 victory against fellow Big East member Cincinnati last Saturday in order to advance to the Sweet 16.
For the Aztecs, getting this far in the postseason at the Division I level is new territory, but for UConn it is nothing new as the team owns NCAA championships from both 1999 and 2004 and is now 46-27 overall in the event all-time.
The winner of this first-ever meeting between these two schools will clash with the winner of the Duke/Arizona matchup on Saturday for the right to move on to the Final Four in Houston next weekend.
Recently named a finalist for National Player of the Year honors, the amazing Kemba Walker had another huge game for the Huskies last weekend as he delivered a game-high 33 points in the 11-point win over Cincinnati in the nation’s capital. Walker knocked down a decent 8-of-20 from the floor but a far-more-impressive 14-of-14 at the free-throw line for a team that connected on 25-of-30 collectively at the charity stripe, compared to just 10-of-14 for the Bearcats. Jeremy Lamb added 14 points, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel 10 points off the bench and Alex Oriakhi a team-best 11 rebounds, but the big man in the middle missed on all six of his field goal attempts and finished with just four points. Oriakhi, who ranks second in the Big East in rebounding with almost nine per game, has accounted for a combined 21 rebounds in the first two games of the tournament for the Huskies, but he has been a forgotten part of the offense in terms of scoring with just 13 points after scoring in double figures in all but one of the team’s five contests in the conference tournament. Clearly, the scoring has become even more crucial for Walker as the season has worn on and as one of the nation’s leaders in that department with 23.6 ppg now is not the time to defer to anyone else anyway.
Playing in their first overtime game of the season, the Aztecs needed some strong efforts in the paint to get them over the hump against the Temple Owls on Saturday in Tucson. Billy White responded with a double-double consisting of 16 points and a game-high 13 rebounds as four of the SDSU starters scored in double figures. Kawhi Leonard dropped in 16 points and cleared nine rebounds, followed by Malcolm Thomas with 13 points and nine boards as well, while Chase Tapley tallied 12 points on a solid 4-of-5 shooting behind the three-point line. However, for the second time in as many games, starting guard D.J. Gay had a hard time shooting the ball as he converted just 3-of-13 from the floor, including 1-of-4 behind the three-point line. Although, the game was not a complete loss for Gay as he registered nine points, six rebounds and five assists in 50 minutes of action. In the team’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win two days earlier, Gay was limited to just five points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor and still the Aztecs cruised to the win so one has to assume that once he gets into gear SDSU will be that much tougher to slow down. As important as Gay is to this group, Leonard continues to be the one that opponents have to keep sight of as they plan for how to stop the All- MWC First Team selection and one of the top defenders in the conference in 2010-11 as well. Leonard, who played 46 minutes against the Owls, isn’t flashy but he does get the job done and is a potential double-double waiting to happen.
Walker is going to get his points obviously, but the bigger issue for the Huskies has to be how well they will be able to deal with the physical front line of San Diego State. If Oriakhi is again limited in his point production and takes himself off the floor due to foul trouble, it is not out of the realm of possibility that UConn could be heading home sooner than anticipated.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: San Diego State 73, Connecticut 68