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Sweet 16 Preview West Regional - (3) Connecticut vs. (2) San Diego State

Thursday, 7:15 PM ET

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San Diego State, welcome to the big-boy table of college basketball. Welcome to the place where the adults talk about manly subjects and leave their toys behind. Welcome to the five-star, klieg-light-glare stage of the sport. It’s about time.

Yes, the storyline is quite plain yet highly intriguing: As the San Diego State Aztecs prepare to face the Connecticut Huskies in the first of two West Regional semifinals at the Honda Center, every college basketball pundit will be eager to see how this newbie on the sport’s landscape will fare under pressure. For the first time all year, San Diego State will be facing an elite team outside its conference. The Aztecs and coach Steve Fisher won at Gonzaga, but as the Bulldogs proved in their 22-point loss to BYU over the weekend, they’re not a top-shelf team. San Diego State went undefeated against teams not named BYU during the regular season; only the Cougars from the Mountain West Conference were able to knock them off. However, the other side of the coin is that while SDSU never lost to a non-BYU opponent, Los Aztecs didn’t face a Murderer’s Row of foes. Even the Aztecs’ opponent in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32, the Temple Owls, didn’t carry a top-25 national ranking into battle. It’s fair and, moreover, accurate to say that Connecticut is the first elite team other than BYU that San Diego State has faced all year long. Hoopheads have been waiting to see how the Aztecs would do against a big-name opponent with a superstar performer and a top-tier coach.

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Now, everyone who loves this sport will get his or her wish. It’s showtime in Southern California for the team that won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in school history (against Northern Colorado last Thursday) and then made the program’s first-ever Sweet 16 thanks to the double-overtime survival act against Temple last Saturday in Tucson.

The key to this game is simple: Will San Diego State be awed by the occasion and thrown off balance by its opponent from New England? Connecticut is a formidable team; yet, the Huskies finished ninth in the Big East Conference and, after winning the Maui Invitational late last November, did not gel at a high level until the Big East Conference Tournament just two weeks ago. Superstar guard Kemba Walker and big man Alex Oriakhi were ground down by the Big East regular season, but they emerged at the top of their game in New York City during a spectacular five-win-in-five-day run through Madison Square Garden. UConn maintained that winning edge in the first two rounds of the NCAAs, but one wonders if the Huskies are due for a comedown. At any rate, the hoops world’s questions will be answered on Thursday.

One suspects that UConn will deliver the goods because coach Jim Calhoun has his team playing loose and confident ball at the right time of year. However, the burden of proof – and competitive balance – lies with the Aztecs. It’s San Diego State that needs to prove its worth on the college basketball scene. It’s San Diego State which has never gotten this far in March Madness. It’s San Diego State which needs to prove it can hang with a team guided by a national champion coach who has already been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Connecticut might wobble and return to the struggles it experienced in the month of February, but if that happens, its opponent will be responsible for such a regression. The Aztecs need to give the Huskies reason to flinch. Everyone in and around the sport wonders if the new kids on the block have the moxie and resilience needed to make that happen.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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