It’s hard to find a more intriguing second-round game in the NCAA Tournament than the one between sixth-seeded Houston and No. 11 seed San Diego State that will be played Thursday in a West Region battle at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.
The Cougars (26-7, runners-up in the American Athletic Conference Tournament) and the Aztecs (22-10, winners of the Mountain West championship) have been on a roll over the second half of the season. Now it’s just a matter of keeping that momentum in a win-or-go-home scenario and when the spotlights are the brightest.
The winner of the San Diego State-Houston clash will square off against the victor of the No. 3 Michigan (28-7) and No. 14 Montana (26-7) showdown Saturday.
Both teams are healthy and hungry and ready to prove they belong on the short list of this year’s best squads.
Houston has produced one of its best seasons in decades, breaking into the Top 25 and cresting at No. 21 and finishing in a tie for second place in the AAC. The Cougars dominated Arkansas of the SEC and had top-10 wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, and did not lose consecutive games.
Then they came within a point of beating Cincinnati, a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs which won the league’s regular-season title, in the AAC tournament final after beating Wichita State (who was granted a No. 4 seed) in the semifinals.
“To beat Wichita State and lose by one to Cincinnati shows we are right in the conversation with those teams,” Houston guard Rob Gray said. “We feel like we can compete with anyone we are matched up with.”
Houston will compete in the NCAA Tournament for the 20th time and first since 2010.
“At the end of the day, our ultimate goal was to make the tournament, and we did that,” Houston guard Corey Davis Jr. said. “We should celebrate that because that’s an awesome feat.”
Houston heads to the NCAA tournament with 12 wins in its last 15 games and an RPI higher than most of the tournament’s fourth and fifth seeds.
“We want this to be something that we expect,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said, “to establish ourselves as a perennial NCAA Tournament team.”
San Diego State captured three games in three days at the Mountain West tournament, including the final against New Mexico, to earn its berth in the NCAAs. The Aztecs have won nine straight games since the return of injured guard Trey Kell in mid-February.
“We’re the most confident we’ve been all year, and we’re as locked in we’ve been all year,” Kell said. “We’re finally all healthy. I mean, we’re rolling right now. I don’t think you want to play a team as hot as we are right now.”
San Diego State is making its first NCAA appearance since 2015 and its seventh in the last nine seasons.
“We have wins over three nationally ranked teams, two in the last week against Nevada and have a nine-game win streak, I think that got (the NCAA’s) attention,” said Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher, who’s in his first year at the helm. “Our guys are playing with great confidence and swagger right now, so I don’t think there is any pressure that they’re feeling at all. I think they’re just playing with great expectations.”
Houston and San Diego State have played twice in the past, with the Aztecs’ posting a 78-66 victory in San Diego on Jan. 29, 2002 and a 71-61 triumph in Houston the following season Dec. 21, 2002.