1. How would you compare the Aztecs when they fell to Arizona 69-60 on Nov. 14 to the team today (we'll get to Dwayne Polee II in a second)? Any significant improvements or things you've learned?
Well, obviously Dwayne Polee II. But I think other than Polee, there are two big differences: Josh Davis has found his niche within the team and Xavier Thames is as confident as can be. Davis, in just his second game with a new team after spending his undergraduate years at Tulane, played an empty 33 minutes against the Wildcats. He only grabbed four boards against the Wildcats, tied for his lowest total of the year. At Tulane, Davis was a primary offensive threat. With SDSU, however, Davis' biggest role is to hog the boards, and as the season progressed, Davis began to relish that role. He even told the school newspaper that he wants his legacy with SDSU to be his rebounding skills. He went on the average 9.9 boards per game, 16th best in the country, and grabbed double-digit rebounds 18 times this season. He's comfortable with his role on the team and is a big reason why SDSU is as great rebounding team.
Xavier Thames entered this season practically unknown. A back injury last year kept him from producing at the levels he thought he could, averaging just 9.5 points per contest. His confidence has grown exponentially every game as he's realized his ability to the point where he's playing his best basketball (on offense and defense) of the year. Nobody knew who Thames was at the time of the first Arizona game; that's definitely not true now.
2. Dwayne Polee II didn't play in the Arizona game way back when but has come on strong as a double-digit scorer late in the year. Describe his game and how he gets open shots.
Polee is a gazelle out there on the court. His graceful athleticism makes him a big threat on offense and his sheer length poses a big threat on defense. This is basically how SDSU's offense has worked lately: Polee sets a pick for Thames at the top of the key, and Thames either creates a shot for himself or dishes it to Polee. Polee will either catch and shoot or shot-fake and drive the lane. His shot is strong from all over the court: in the last five games he's shot 52.6 percent from beyond the arc and 47.8 percent from within the arc. He has remarkable body control in the air and can navigate his long arms around big bodies in the paint. But the biggest thing Polee brings is his energy: when he comes off the bench, not only do the fans get excited, but the players do. Put simply, Thames is huge to this team, but the team is at its best when Polee is on the floor. That's why Fisher calls him his "sixth starter" now.
3. Xavier Thames is the engine to this team. What have you seen from him, especially late in games during this NCAA Tournament?
Just his confidence and ability to create shots. I'm sure Arizona fans know this, but SDSU struggles with half court offense. Consequently, Thames has to create shots late in the shot clock--and most of the time it goes in. Like I said earlier, Thames is playing healthy and playing confident. He knows how important he is to the team and he takes that responsibility seriously. If this game comes down to a late last possession, there's no way the ball isn't in Thames' hands.
4. After Thames and Polee II , where else would you expect the scoring to come from for San Diego State?
That's been this team's weakness as of late: who's that third scorer? I would say it's sophomore forward/guard Winston Shepard. With 6'8" height and solid ball handling skills, Shepard poses a matchup nightmare to a lot of teams. However, lately that hasn't translated into points for the sophomore from Houston. He's shooting just 23.3 percent in the last four games, but the shots haven't been bad. One thing about Shepard: it's hard to shake his confidence, or Coach Fisher's confidence in him. Shepard will continue to be aggressive on offense, and I would expect the third scoring threat to come from him.
5. I've been pretty repetitive about Arizona needing to get easy baskets and avoid half-court offense. How do you see San Diego State's defense making that happen -- or how do you see them stopping the Wildcats in general?
A lot is made about SDSU's length on defense and how it clogs lanes that, against other teams, would be wide open. But another big defensive strength for SDSU is its speed. Because of this speed, SDSU allows a very small amount of transition buckets, which will be advantageous against Arizona. But both these defenses are almost identical, I see buckets for either team coming at a premium.
6. SDSU needed overtime to beat New Mexico State earlier in the tournament after the Aztecs let the Aggies back into the game in the second half. What caused that comeback and was that, or anything else you've seen, concerning for Steve Fisher's team as they advance through the tournament?
SDSU came out slow in the second half. They had a 12-point lead and let their guard down. But I wouldn't say that's a concern as we enter the West Regional: there will be no underestimating on either side. I think the biggest concern is scoring: other than Thames and Polee, who will score? Or even scarier to think about for SDSU fans: if Polee or Thames have an off-night, who will step up?
7. Briefly, what will SDSU need to do for a win, and what do you think would doom them against Arizona?
These two defenses will rip each other a part. This game will come down to who can somehow find the bottom of the net more often. If SDSU gets some offense from a player other than Thames and Polee, I think the Aztecs' chances are good. If Arizona can limit SDSU's offense to just Polee and Thames, I think the Wildcats' chances are good.