Two of the hottest teams in the NCAA Tournament will collide when Houston and San Diego State clash in the first round. Both the Cougars and the Aztecs played their way into a field by going on a tear since the start of February.
Houston (26-7) earned just its second NCAA bid since 1992 after winning 10 of 12 games to clinch a bid. The Cougars notched upset wins over top-10 opponents Cincinnati and Wichita State during that stretch and then pushed the Bearcats to the limit in the American Athletic Conference championship game rematch.
San Diego State (22-10) emerged as a true bid thief after some early-season struggles. The Aztecs ripped off nine straight wins — capped by a Mountain West Conference tournament crown — to get back into the field of 68 for the first time since 2015.
This will be the third meeting between the two schools. San Diego State owns a 2-0 lead in the series. The Aztecs beat Houston 78-66 in the 2001-02 season and then prevailed 71-61 over the Cougars the following campaign.
West Region: No. 11 San Diego State Aztecs (22-10) vs. No. 6 Houston Cougars (26-7)
Time: 7:20 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: INTRUST Bank Arena (Wichita, Kan.)
Keys for San Diego State
One of the strengths of San Diego State's offense is balance. Five different players score in double figures, led by Malik Pope with 12.9 points per game. That balance will be critical against Houston. The Aztecs will need multiple players to step up and provide offense against the Cougars to combat their tough defense. Houston allows opponents to shoot just 39.6 percent from the field, which ranks ninth nationally in field goal defense.
Size matters and San Diego State possesses plenty of it that the Aztecs can use to their advantage. Houston is a guard-oriented team with only one player taller than 6-foot-8 on the roster. Pope and Jalen McDaniels are both 6-foot-10 and reserve big men Nolan Narain and Kameron Rooks stand at 6-foot-10 and 7-foot-1 respectively. San Diego State has the size advantage in the post and must use it to close off driving lanes and clean up rebounds.
Keys for Houston
Cleaning the glass is an area of expertise for the Cougars. Opponents have had a tough time snagging rebounds against Houston this season. The Cougars collect 6.9 more rebounds per game than opponents and rank 14th nationally in rebound margin. Winning the rebound battle will be critical against San Diego State. The Aztecs are no slouch in that department, with 5.3 more rebounds per game than their opponents this season.
Rob Gray has kicked it into extra gear for Houston over the past seven games. Gray has a penchant for getting tons of buckets in a hurry. When he does, good things happen for the Cougars. In his last seven games, the senior point guard is averaging 23.6 points on 47.8 percent shooting and 5.7 assists. Posting that level of offensive production against San Diego State will make it hard for the Aztecs to keep up.
History says that a double-digit-seeded Mountain West team is a sure candidate for a first-round exit. Since 1999, only one team from the league has won an NCAA Tournament game while seeded in the 10 to 16 range.
The script isn't likely to change this time around. San Diego State is a solid defensive team and has tremendous offensive balance. On the other hand, the Aztecs are prone to prolonged shooting droughts and tend to live and die by the 3-pointer. If the outside shot is falling, they can beat anyone. If it isn't, they can lose just as easily to anyone.
Houston is skilled at crashing the boards and burying opponents from the 3-point line. The Cougars performed well in a tougher league against better competition. This will be a tough, close game. But Houston has the right tools to avoid the upset bug that has plagued 6-seeds in the last two tournaments.
Prediction: Houston 73, San Diego State 71
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of GoAztecs.com)