Thursday, 7:17 p.m. MST
Stopping Xavier Thames
If the Arizona Wildcats want to advance to an Elite Eight, they'll have to find a way to stop San Diego State Aztecs point guard Xavier Thames, the heart and soul of Steve Fisher's team. Fisher and Thames might be spitting images of one another because of their commitment to team, but this team wouldn't be in the Sweet 16 without the 6'3 senior.
Thames' Value Add ranks 11th-best in the country, according to ValueAddBasketball.com. His calculated 6.83 points added to SDSU's point spread this season is right on the money with another gutsy, scoring point guard in Louisville's Russ Smith -- likewise, the Cardinals find themselves in the Sweet 16.
The Aztecs didn't have the easiest times of getting to this point of the NCAA Tournament, but they have Thames to thank in doing so. He scored 23 points to go with five assists in second-round overtime victory against New Mexico State, and he hit 10-of-12 free throws to make up for a 6-for-17 field goal shooting outing. In the third round, Thames scored 30 points against North Dakota State, dolled out another five assists, hit four threes and got to the foul stripe nine times.
Against the Wildcats, matchups could dictate a big game for Thames. It'd be a luxury to have Nick Johnson available to use his physicality against Thames, but SDSU's length at every other position will make it hard to put anyone but T.J. McConnell on the point guard -- Thames went 5-for-16 from the field and scored 19 in the first meeting with UA this season.
Thames shoots 38 percent from three and takes more than a third of his overall attempts from beyond the arc. Nearly 50 percent of them aren't off assists, a sign that McConnell -- or whomever has the assignment -- will need to be in Thames' chest. On pick-and-rolls, the Arizona big men failing to hedge strongly or trap will make the Wildcats vulnerable. The good news there is Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would just as soon switch.
Arizona has the horses to keep Thames in check, but even a few slips could get him going at any point in the game.
That's why San Diego State finds itself having another shot at winning the Best of the West.
Scouting the Aztecs
The season: After Arizona rolled into San Diego and dropped the Aztecs early in the nonconference schedule on Nov. 14, Fisher's team went on a 20-game winning streak. Their next loss came Feb. 11 against Wyoming, and overall, SDSU went 3-3 against top-25 RPI teams. SDSU beat a dangerous Creighton squad 86-80 and also dropped Kansas 61-57, then lost two of three against the New Mexico Lobos.
Who's who? After Thames, the Aztecs run out a long lineup that will be able to defend like Arizona -- SDSU is ranked first by Sports-Reference in allowing just 87.7 points per 100 possessions and seventh by KenPom in adjusted defensive ratings.
Whatever the case may be, the Aztecs don't get any bigger than 6'10, 235 pound forward Skylar Spencer, but he does average 2.5 blocks per game. Lanky forward Josh Davis has become an aggressive rebounder who threatens to do what Weber State rebounding machine Joel Bolomboy did to Aaron Gordon in the second round of Arizona's tournament. Davis is also No. 2 in the nation in individual defensive rating and is a top-10 player with Gordon in defensive win shares this season, according to Sports-Reference.com.
Simply put, Thames and the Aztecs shoot
X-factor: Arizona didn't see forward Dwayne Polee II in the first game, and he will provide a tall and dangerous scoring threat off the bench. It seems as though the 6'7 shooter will be a perfect assignment for Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson off the bench. Polee has scored in double-figures the last four games and as a 38 percent three-point shooter gives the limited Aztecs a floor-stretcher that, like Arizona, it might lack in numbers.
A review of the first meeting
Foul trouble was a scary factor in Arizona's 69-60 win against the Aztecs in its third game of the year. Four starters ended the game with four fouls, and Hollis-Jefferson fouled out off the bench. Nick Johnson scored 23 points and Aaron Gordon added 16, but SDSU kept pace behind Thames and 19 points from J.J. O'Brien.
The two teams combined for just 20 turnovers, but UA's field goal defense (36 percent) won out of San Diego State's (45 percent).
If anything, the first meeting should make Arizona wary of getting into foul trouble. San Diego State scores 24.4 percent of their points at the foul stripe (the Wildcats come in at 20.6 percent).
The stat of all stats
San Diego State won 118 games in a row when leading with five minutes left in regulation, but that run came to an end when the New Mexico State Aggies forced overtime in the second round game. Or, you can look at it that they're still perfect in that stretch.