ANAHEIM, Calif. — Arizona and San Diego State are back on familiar ground in the NCAA West Regional.
Three years ago, both failed to advance out of the Sweet 16. This time, one of them is going home early again.
Coach Steve Fisher has never watched the tape of the Aztecs’ loss to Connecticut as a No. 2 seed in the 2011 regional semifinals at Honda Center. Fourth-seeded SDSU (31-4) is back in the regional for the first time since then.
“I still think we were better than Connecticut when they won the national championship,” Fisher said Wednesday.
The top-seeded Wildcats (32-4) are playing in their third Sweet 16 in four years. Three years ago in Anaheim, they lost to UConn by two points in the regional final.
Thursday night’s semifinal is a rematch between two teams that last played on Nov. 14, a lifetime ago in college basketball. The Wildcats won that road game 69-60 after leading by 14 points in the first half and then withstanding the Aztecs’ late rally that cut the deficit to four.
“They guard, guard, guard, and they share the ball,” Fisher said about Arizona. “That is a winning formula and they’ve got it.”
Nick Johnson had 23 points and Aaron Gordon added 16 for the Wildcats, who went on to win 20 straight games and were ranked No. 1 for eight weeks. JJ O’Brien and Xavier Thames scored 19 points each for the Aztecs.
Of course, much more is at stake now.
Arizona wants to reach the Final Four, where coach Sean Miller has never been despite restoring the program to an elite level during his five years in the desert.
San Diego State’s modest basketball resume includes never advancing beyond the Sweet 16; the school didn’t even win an NCAA tournament game in its first 40 seasons playing Division I ball.
“They’re out to prove that they’re better than the outside world has given them credit,” Miller said.
Defense will be at a premium in the matchup, with both teams holding opponents under 40 percent shooting. The Wildcats lead the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing 87.2 points per 100 possessions, while San Diego State allows 90.3 points.
“They’re long, athletic just like us, so they like to press a little bit, create turnovers,” Arizona star Nick Johnson said. “That’s going to be the key to the game as far as us just doing what we do, be a defensive team. Take care of the ball when they try to pressure us.”
The Aztecs are stingy beyond the arc, limiting opponents to 28 percent from 3-point range.
“We love playing defense,” Thames said. “We know offense is going to come, but if we want to win and win big, we have to play defense.”
The Aztecs have more than double the number of steals by their opponents.
“They get big turnovers with the way they play defense, which gives them additional offense,” Miller said.
Offensively, both teams are dead even, allowing only 56.6 points per game.
Arizona is coming off a 23-point win over Gonzaga. The Wildcats scored 31 points off the Zags’ 21 turnovers, including 15 steals. SDSU had a combined 17 turnovers in its first two NCAA wins.
“We just can’t turn the ball over,” Aztecs forward Winston Shepard said. “We watched some of the Gonzaga clips and they’re a great team, but they turned the ball over too much.”
Some personnel have changed since that November game.
This time, the Wildcats won’t have starting forward Brandon Ashley, whose season ended in early February because of a foot injury.
The Aztecs will have forward Dwayne Polee and guard Aqeel Quinn, neither of whom played in November but are now integral members of the team.
“I’m going to go out, bring a lot of energy to the game, try to pump my teammates up, try to pump the crowd up,” said Polee, his team’s fourth-leading scorer.
Both schools figure to be well represented in the red-clad stands. San Diego State fans have a 90-mile trip up the freeway, while Arizona boosters have packed the West Regional in recent years.