How they got here: San Diego State needed double overtime to outlast Temple and get to the Sweet 16. Just as they have throughout the season, the Aztecs survived that challenge and made plays down the stretch to earn their second NCAA tournament win in school history. Connecticut knocked off Big East opponent Cincinnati to reach the Sweet 16. The Huskies showed little rust having cruised past Bucknell as well, following a stretch during which they won five games in five days to win the Big East tournament title.
Storyline: San Diego State’s magical run continues on, with the Aztecs having only lost to one team all season -- Brigham Young. This time it’s not Jimmer Fredette standing in their way, but UConn’s Kemba Walker.
Connecticut has the pedigree and the tradition and San Diego State does not, but the Huskies don’t mind considering themselves underdogs since the Aztecs are the No. 2 seed. “I think we’re the underdog,” UConn forward Alex Oriakhi said. “We kind of like being the underdog.”
The Aztecs get to play in Southern California about an hour-and-a-half drive from campus, so look for them to have an advantage when it comes to the crowd. But coming from the Big East, Walker doesn’t think that will be much of a negative impact for the Huskies.
“We’ve been in some tough places this season,” he said. “We pulled some big wins out on the road. We’ll be fine.”
Players to watch: Walker has had a national player of the year-caliber season, averaging 23.6 point per game, and San Diego State will have to slow him down in order to improve its chances. Walker is a different type of player than Fredette, the BYU star who the Aztecs have had trouble handling on the perimeter, but the challenge is just as great.
“You’ve got to keep him off the line,” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. “He know how to draw fouls. He’s lightning quick with the ball. We’ve got to keep him on the outside, challenge his perimeter shot, minimize the number of throws and layups he gets. It’s easy to say, hard to do.”
For San Diego State, forward Billy White is playing his best basketball, as he has notched double-doubles in his previous three games. The Aztecs would like to get point guard D.J. Gay's shot going after struggling in the NCAA tournament thus far.
But UConn will be focused on stopping Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State’s double-double machine who leads the team in scoring and rebounding.
“He’s a multi-dimensional forward who can do so many things,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “He’s a lottery selection in my opinion. He’s a matchup problem from Day 1.”
What to look for: Asked how he would guard himself, Leonard obliged and said, “Play the best defense, and hope I miss.” That might go double for Walker and how the Aztecs plan to try to slow him down.
“Kemba gets to the basket at will, and his mid-range game is close to perfect,” Gay said.
Gay will likely get the first crack at Walker. But just as Fredette faced multiple defenders, expect to see White try to stop one of college basketball’s biggest shot-makers.
The Aztecs do appear to have an advantage inside with their strong frontline of Leonard, White and Malcolm Thomas. Still, Walker thinks his team has the players to match the Aztecs inside.
“If Alex and the other bigs do a great job containing those guys on the rebounding," he said of the 6-foot-9 Oriakhi, "then I think we’ll be fine."