SAN DIEGO — In theory, it was an all-sports news conference that San Diego State was holding Monday at Viejas Arena, but Aztec women’s track and field coach Shelia Burrell knew better than that.
“Want to talk about my bracket?” she said upon sitting down at the podium.
Then, of course, she proceeded to talk about the Aztec basketball team.
“I was kind of hoping they’d play Arizona,” she said. “But then I saw them play last night.”
Oh, yeah. Them. The group of Wildcats that dismantled a strong Gonzaga team 84-61 in a round-of-32 NCAA tournament game to reach a Sweet 16 showdown with SDSU on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.
But as it turned out, everyone else who took the podium Monday had quite a bit more confidence. Including football coach Rocky Long, basketball coach Steve Fisher and the six players SDSU made available for comment.
Even if SDSU never has advanced past the Sweet 16. Ever.
“For us, if we win Thursday, it would be doing something that’s never been done here, so it’s always fun to be part of the first time,” Fisher said. “Even though we haven’t I don’t think we’re any different than the others in the (final) 16.
“Our ultimate goal is to not only go to Dallas (for the Final Four) but win a championship. We’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about winning this little two-game setup in Anaheim, but we think we’re good enough. I’m not bragging. I just think we’re good enough to play with anybody.”
SDSU’s leading scorer, guard Xavier Thames, was in line with that assessment. And he’s played against Arizona for both Washington State and SDSU, knowing what the Aztecs will be up against.
“Whoever we played we’re gonna be ready,” Thames said. “I had a feeling it would be Arizona because they’re playing really well.”
But so is San Diego State. While the Wildcats beat the Aztecs 69-60 back on Nov. 14 at Viejas Arena, SDSU responded by ripping off 20 wins in a row after that.
Like Arizona, the Aztecs have only four losses, with two of them on the road in conference play (at Wyoming and New Mexico) and one in their conference tournament (to New Mexico in the Mountain West final).
Also like Arizona, San Diego State keeps opponents under 40-percent field goal shooting. And while Arizona is the most efficient defensive team in the nation (87.2 points allowed per 100 opponent possessions), SDSU is seventh (90.3).
Both teams appear to be improved from that early-season matchup.
“If you’re playing now, you’re better than you were in November,” Fisher said. “They’re a lot better in every regard, but we’re better, also. Our offensive efficiency is more improved; we’re doing things more offensively to move you around.”
While the Wildcats have turned to guard Gabe York as a starter and made a few other more subtle moves since losing Brandon Ashley to injury in midseason, Fisher said the Aztecs have injected their offense with the improvement of forward Dwayne Polee.
“He’s been sensational,” Fisher said.
Almost inexplicably, at least to Fisher, Polee was a DNP for that Nov. 14 game, still outside the regular Aztec rotation. Now he’s San Dieo State’s fourth-leading scorer, averaging 8.4 points per game.
“He didn’t play because someone didn’t put him in the game. Me,” Fisher said. “And now others are saying, ‘Why didn’t he play in the first game? And I’m saying, ‘Why didn’t he play him in the first game? Why?’ I don’t know how he would have played, but I wished I gave him a chance to play.
“It was a coach’s decision, but sometimes through the course of a season you have a rotation and sometimes it doesn’t change. Sometimes it does. Dwayne was nine in a 10-man pecking order and now he’s our sixth starter.”
No doubt Polee will get a chance this time against Arizona. Although he’d settle for a chance against anybody.
It’s the Sweet 16, after all.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Polee said. “It’s the best time of year in college basketball, whether it’s Arizona or anyone else.”