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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

San Diego State finds itself among college basketball royalty in Anaheim

The Aztecs, who play Thursday in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament's West Regional, are joined at Honda Center by Arizona, Connecticut and Duke.

March 23, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard takes part in a team practice session at Honda Center on Wednesday.
San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard takes part in a team practice session… (Gary A. Vasquez / U.S. Presswire )

"We want Kemba!"

San Diego State fans actually chanted that Saturday in the throes of a double-overtime victory over Temple that shot the Aztecs from Tucson to Anaheim.

"We want Kemba!"

Seriously? Kemba Walker, the Connecticut Huskies' irrepressible, unstoppable, unsinkable, unflappable guard?

They could have also chanted: "We want phlebitis!"

Or an IRS audit.

No, maybe, you don't.

San Diego State's Billy White no longer fades into background

San Diego State, until a few days ago, had never won an NCAA tournament game — but suddenly its fans are picking out drapes.

We'll chalk this up to healthy overexuberance given that San Diego State is new at this.

The Aztecs are in Anaheim with three other programs — Connecticut, Duke and Arizona — that have combined for 189 NCAA tournament victories.

San Diego State can count its wins on two thumbs.

That doesn't mean the Aztecs don't belong — they do. It's just that no one has ever seen San Diego State so all dressed up with somewhere to go.

"Politically, I guess we're supposed to lose," Aztecs senior point guard D.J. Gay said Wednesday at Honda Center.

"That's what everybody said. I mean, Obama picked us to lose. If the president of the United States says you're going to lose, then you are the underdog in that game."

Secretly, the other regions must be jealous. The West got a Lawrence Welk intro of seedings: "a 1, a 2, a 3," plus a No. 5.

The locker rooms here should have posted signs: "Absolutely NO double-digit seeds allowed!"

The East got No. 1 overall Ohio State, Kentucky, North Carolina and some other school … oh, yeah: Marquette.

And the Southeast got the Mormons in New Orleans.

The Southwest will charm your pants off with its No. 13 Morehead State, No. 12 Richmond and No. 10 Florida State.

Cute as a button, but the West's four-team seeding numbers total a No. 11.

If you can't get into Thursday's two matchups — San Diego State versus Connecticut in the first game, Duke-Arizona in the nightcap — you and a rock might have the same pulse.

The story lines are spilling onto Katella Avenue. Every team here has a marquee star: Walker (Connecticut), Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State), Derrick Williams (Arizona) and Nolan Smith (Duke).

And that's not even counting Duke X-factor Kyrie Irving, who has returned from a serious foot injury to seriously scramble everyone's thought process.

The only coach in this regional without a national title is Arizona's Sean Miller, and he's working it.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is more decorated than a birthday cake. He hits the hardwood two wins from tying Bob Knight's NCAA Division I men's record of 902. There hasn't been a coach this good in the area since June, when John Wooden was alive.

Duke is the defending national champion — a team to love or loathe. Coach K didn't like his last trip here, in 2003, when Kansas sent him packing in the regional semifinals.

Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, despite a NCAA sanctions dust-up, has done some of his finest work of late. By late we mean five victories in five days to win the Big East Conference tournament and then wins in two NCAA tournament games.

The Huskies wouldn't recognize the 9-9 team they were in Big East play.

Walker, the star guard, has a gas tank that never seems to hit empty.

"We're like machines, we don't get tired," he joked Wednesday in the hallway outside his team's locker room. "We've got chips in our heads."

Steve Fisher of San Diego State, decades removed from his Michigan days, has proved there is life long after 60 and long after getting fired.

There are also homecomings this week. The Aztecs' Leonard remembers playing at Honda Center during his junior and senior seasons at Riverside King High. He said he hit a "runner" to send a game to overtime. He was eager Wednesday to return to the floor and reconnect with some of his sweet spots.

Six Arizona players have kin in the area. Alex Jacobson played a stone's throw over at Santa Ana Mater Dei. Kyle Fogg toiled up the 57 Freeway at Brea Olinda. Solomon Hill and Jordin Mayes are from Los Angeles Westchester.

Two years ago, at La Mirada, Williams was dunking over little high school kids — now he's a soon-to-be NBA lottery pick.

The matchups are compelling, and somewhat inverted.

Connecticut must find a way to deal with San Diego State's imposing front line of Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas

Leonard would have fit in on any of Calhoun's best teams.

"He's a heck of a matchup problem and can cause some sleepless mornings," Calhoun said.

San Diego State must somehow contain Walker, who has carried Connecticut to seven straight wins … since March 8. Walker, who scored 130 points in the Big East tournament, is fresh off a 33-point effort against Cincinnati.

Walker is a different kind of superstar guard from Brigham Young's prolific Jimmer Fredette.

"Jimmer is more of a three-point threat," San Diego State's Gay said. "Kemba, he gets to the basket at will and his midrange game is close to perfect."

"We want Kemba!" the fans cried.

You got him.

Arizona's problem will be matching its relative weakness in the backcourt to Duke's three-headed guard monster now that freshman Irving is fresh.

This just in: "Duke's guards are some of the best in the country," Arizona's Fogg said.

That will put even more pressure on Williams, the hero of Arizona's two NCAA tournament wins.

Krzyzewski said Wednesday that Williams "may be as good as anybody."

The same could be said for Coach K, and Player K (Kemba), Calhoun, Leonard, Smith and Williams.

And they're all in Anaheim on the same day.

Oh happy day.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/dufresnelatimes

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