SAN DIEGO (AP) Steve Fisher’s San Diego State Aztecs are painfully familiar with their opponent in the Sweet 16, the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats.
Last season, Nick Johnson swooped out of nowhere to block a layup by Chase Tapley to preserve a one-point Wildcats win in a tournament in Hawaii. In the second game this season, San Diego State pulled within four points of the visiting Wildcats before freshman Aaron Gordon had a soaring dunk off an inbounds pass from T. J. McConnell to put away the Aztecs. Arizona won 69-60.
”They both sting, but the one in Hawaii kind of hurt the most because we thought we for sure had that game won, and then Nick Johnson just came out of nowhere and blocked the shot,” SDSU `s star point guard, Xavier Thames, said Monday ”But it’s always a good game when we play against Arizona the last few years. So I’m sure it’s going to be another great one.”
They’ll meet again Thursday night in Anaheim. While Arizona is used to getting this far, it’s only the second Sweet 16 appearance for the fourth-seeded Aztecs. They lost in the regional semifinals three years ago to eventual national champion Connecticut, also in Anaheim.
”We’re trying to do something we’ve never done before,” Fisher said. ”Arizona is trying to do old school, what they’ve gotten used to doing. So we’ll both have the same goal, win two games in Anaheim.”
SDSU reached the Sweet 16 by beating New Mexico State in overtime and then routing North Dakota State behind Thames’ 30 points. While the Aztecs were winning in Spokane, Wash., the Wildcats won two games in SDSU’s arena, beating Weber State and then racing past Gonzaga.
Arena workers removed the floor used for the tournament and had the Aztecs’ hardwood reinstalled in time for practice Monday.
While the Aztecs are excited to still be alive, ”we don’t want anybody to assume that we don’t feel like we belong,” Fisher said. ”We are going up with the expectations that we feel like we’re good enough to win.”
Beating the Wildcats would be huge for a lot of reasons, including being another major step under Fisher, who has turned a once-moribund team into one of the best programs in the West.
On Monday morning, several students lined up at Viejas Arena to buy tickets to the Sweet 16.
”We’ve packed this building, 12,414 strong, for several seasons now in a row,” Fisher said. ”I can look out my window and see the ticket window during the season, and I could tell. Sometimes I would ask, `What concert is there?’ And they would say, `No, that’s for us. That’s for our game.’ So that doesn’t surprise me. We’re right up the road.”
If Fisher has any regrets from the first Arizona game this season, it’s not playing Dwayne Polee II, who wasn’t in the rotation early but came on so strong by the end of the season that he was named the Mountain West Conference’s top sixth man.
”Polee didn’t play in the first game because someone didn’t put him in the game – me,” Fisher said. ”I don’t know how he would have played, but I wish I had at least given him a chance to play in the first game. It was me. It was a coach’s decision. You know, through the course of a season you have a rotation, and sometimes it never changes, and sometimes it does change. With us it changed. Dwayne went from ninth or 10th man on the pecking order to our sixth starter.”
The Aztecs know they need to have someone step up to help Thames carry the scoring load. Polee scored 15 against North Dakota State, but Winston Shepard is struggling.
”I’ve got one more secret weapon that I’m saving for Thursday, that I will not talk about now,” Fisher said, equating his offensive surprise to when the Aztecs surprised New Mexico with a 1-3-1 zone to erase a 16-point deficit in the regular-season finale and win the Mountain West Conference title. ”We had that up our sleeve. So we have one more thing that we’re keeping in the shadows until we play Arizona that I’ll refuse to divulge right now.”
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson