By Christopher Mohr
March 16, 2011 (San Diego) - The San Diego State Aztecs men's basketball team continues its storied season as the second seeded team in the Western Regional of the 2011 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship tournament. Winning the Mountain West Conference (MWC) tournament and having a record of 32-2 gave the Aztecs a favorable seed from the NCAA selection committee, which announced on Sunday (3/13) the 68 teams that qualified for the championship tournament.
The 68 teams that earned berths in the championship tournament are divided into four regions: East, West, Southeast and Southwest. The first round, also known as the 'First Four' began Tuesday (3/15) and consists of only four games (one in each region) between eight different teams. These teams 'play-in' to advance to the second round of the tournament, where 64 teams remain.
FIRST FOUR UPDATE: Clemson defeated Alabama-Birmingham 70-52 Tuesday night, allowing the Tigers to enter the second round of the Eastern regional as the 12th seed. They will face fith seed West Virginia on Thursday. North Carolina-Asheville edged out Arkansas-Little Rock Tuesday night by a score of 81-77. The Bulldogs enter the Southeast regional as the 16th seed and will play first seed Pittsburgh, also on Thursday.
Southern California will face Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday. The winner of that game will enter the Southwest regional as the 11th seed and will face sixth seed Georgetown on Friday.
Texas-San Antonio will face Alabama State on Wednesday. The winner of that game will enter the East regional as the 16th seed and will face first seed Ohio State on Friday.
The completion of Wednesday's games ends the first round and leaves 64 teams in the championship tournament. At this point, the tournament becomes a set of four separate 16 team, single elimination tournaments, one for each region. The winners of each region make up the 'Final Four' teams and travel to Houston, TX to play for the national championship at Reliant Stadium.
The Aztecs face their first opponent, the 15th seeded Northern Colorado Bears, at 1:40 Pacific time on Thursday (3/17) at the McKale Center in Tucson on the campus of the University of Arizona. The Bears are led by senior guard Devon Beitzel (21.4 points per game) and have an overall record of 21-10. They recently won the Big Sky Conference tournament, giving them an automatic berth in the championship tournament, the school's first in its 122 year history.
San Diego State fans hope that the Aztecs can achieve some 'firsts' as well. Although the team has won four Mountain West Conference titles in Steve Fisher's 12 seasons as the team's head coach, they have yet to win a championship tournament game.
The current Aztec team should not only end this dry spell, they also have the ability to advance deep into the tournament. This is by far and away the best team in the program's history, which not too long ago played its home games in the intimate confines of 3,668 seat Peterson Gym. In the three seasons before Fisher's hiring, the Aztecs had a dismal cumulative record of 29-52.
Since then, the Aztecs are 230-151, with four MWC titles and four National Invitaional Tournament (NIT) appearances. They now play in 12,414 seat Viejas Arena with students camping out days in advance of some games, hoping to get tickets that are in very short supply.
Kawhi Leonard is one of the Aztec players to watch. He not only leads the team in scoring with 15.4 points per game, but also leads in rebounding with 10.7 per game. The 6'7" sophomore forward is not expected to return to the Aztecs next season. DraftExpress.com projects him as a 13th pick in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft.
Point guard D.J. Gay has been huge for the Aztecs in so many ways. He can go for several games without turning the ball over and has been clutch with game winning shots against Colorado State and UNLV. Gay leads the MWC in assists-to-turnovers ratio with 3.9 and is tireless, placing third in the conference, playing an average of 35 minutes per game. Malcolm Thomas (San Diego Crawford HS) at 6'9" and 220 pounds provides a strong inside presence with 8.2 rebounds per game and scoring 11.5 points per game.
The 2010 national champion Duke Blue Devils are the number one seed in the West Regional. They enter the championship tournament with a record of 30-4 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with an impressive 75-58 win over arch rival North Carolina. The other number one seeds with regional in parentheses are as follows: Ohio State (East), Kansas (Southwest) and Pittsburgh (Southeast).
If the Aztecs are able to win the next two games in the championship tournament, they would play closer to home at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The Aztecs would need to win twice to advance to the Final Four in Houston. Such an advance is not out of the question as two analysts with ESPN have picked the Aztecs to go to the Final Four.
Wherever the Aztecs end up in the tournament, this has been an impressive season. One can only hope that the program continues to build on this success and develop a tradition that elites like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina have done.
Christopher Mohr is a freelance writer in the San Diego area and is a Chargers, Padres and Detroit Red Wings fan, although lately he has developed a case of Aztec fever.