After surviving and advancing with an overtime win against New Mexico State in the Round of 64, the San Diego State Aztecs beat North Dakota State 63-44 on Saturday to earn a spot in the Sweet 16. They will take on the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Arizona and No. 8 seed Gonzaga in a West Regional semifinal in Anaheim next Thursday.
The Aztecs have brought their defensive prowess with them into the Big Dance, holding New Mexico State and North Dakota State to a combined 7-for-27 from three-point range and an aggregate overall field goal percentage of 36.6 percent (41-for-112). Senior guard Xavier Thames has led the charge offensively, with 53 points through two tournament games while going 18-for-21 from the line, and he also sets the tone for San Diego State defensively.
Thames is clearly the Aztecs’ best player, and regardless of who their Sweet 16 opponent is his individual matchup will be one to watch. Arizona’s Nick Johnson earned Pac-12 Player of the Year honors this year, and Kevin Pangos led Gonzaga with 26 points in their second round win over Oklahoma State.
San Diego State hosted Arizona in non-conference play way back on Nov. 14, losing 69-60 as Johnson had 23 points and freshman standout Aaron Gordon added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats. Thames and forward JJ O’Brien each had 19 points in the game for San Diego State, but they could not quite finish a rally after narrowing a 14-point second half deficit to four with under two minutes to go.
An Arizona-San Diego State matchup would feature two of the top-five scoring defenses in the country, and on paper Gonzaga looks like a much more favorable opponent for the Aztecs. But the Bulldogs have been a very good defensive rebounding team this season (26.2 per game; tied for 28th in the country), and they could present an unexpected challenge in that area if the Aztecs struggle shooting the ball.
With all the upsets elsewhere in this year’s NCAA Tournament, the top four seeds in the West Region still have a chance to be in the Sweet 16 entering Sunday’s action. Things will not be easy from here, with or without an upset or two on Sunday, but I like San Diego State to continue to live by the “defense wins championships” doctrine and make it to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.