ANAHEIM, Calif. — Connecticut flew clear across the continent for the next round of the NCAA tournament. San Diego State hopped in a bus and cruised 90 minutes up the interstate.
Huskies coach Jim Calhoun and Aztecs coach Steve Fisher have been doing this long enough to realize miles don’t matter at this point in the West regional — not compared to the distance both teams already traveled this season to reach this unlikely stage.
Two surprisingly successful schools with breakout superstars and respected bench bosses meet Thursday night at Honda Center, with the winner moving to the brink of the Final Four.
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful journey that we’ve had,” Fisher said before the Aztecs (34-2) practiced Wednesday. “I knew we were going to have a good team. I didn’t know just how good we would be.”
Fisher’s grateful sentiments mirrored the thoughts of Calhoun, a friend for several decades.
While second-seeded San Diego State has won more games and moved deeper into the NCAA tournament than any team in school history behind star forward Kawhi Leonard, UConn’s Hall of Fame coach has been thrilled by his freshman-laden lineup’s growing maturity around star guard Kemba Walker for the Huskies (28-9), one of just two Big East teams left.
Calhoun realizes both teams are playing with house money at this point, but it won’t stop the third-seeded Huskies from pressing their luck in an intriguing intersectional matchup.
“I’m happy. Elated,” the notoriously dour New Englander deadpanned. “I can’t tell you I wrote it down, because I usually try to write where I think we’ll be at the end of the season. … They have the most resilience of any team I’ve ever coached. We’re playing the best basketball right now, and everything that could happen good, has happened good.”
The cross-country element of this matchup also intrigues both teams with the chance to face an opponent the players had scarcely thought about before last weekend. While UConn acknowledges it’s peaking at the perfect time, San Diego State has its best chance yet to demonstrate its season-long excellence against a perennial power.
“You see the rankings and you see us up there, but people don’t really know much about us,” Aztecs forward Tim Shelton said. “We’re finally getting an opportunity to let people see what we’re about. Our guys feed off that. We understand that we’re seen as a mid-major, so people feel like (we) don’t deserve it because (we) don’t consistently play the same type of competition. But we’ve won 34 games. That’s a whole lot of wins.”
San Diego State has talent and experience around Leonard, but no significant history of success at Montezuma Mesa. Aside from two losses to BYU, the Aztecs have been perfect, obliterating the school record for victories while reaching the round of 16 for the first time.
UConn was picked 10th in the preseason Big East coaches’ poll, with most figuring the young Huskies would need a year to grow around Walker, who’s wrapping up the highest-scoring single season in school history. Instead, the Huskies have matured into a force, winning seven straight games in a 12-day span to reach this point.
“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t really know what to expect,” UConn center Alex Oriakhi said. “Having so many freshmen playing in one of the best conferences in the country and having a (tough) coach, I didn’t know if they would be able to respond to him, but they have definitely surprised me and proved me wrong.”
Both teams’ top defenders also share a curiosity about the superstar lining up against them, somebody they’ve only seen on highlight reels, if at all. They couldn’t be much more dissimilar, with the 6-foot Walker’s speedy perimeter game and the 6-foot-7 Leonard’s rangy power.
Calhoun isn’t sure how to contain Leonard, pronouncing him a better pro prospect than BYU’s Jimmer Fredette.
“He’s a heck of a matchup problem, and can cause some sleepless mornings,” Calhoun said. “I’ve been waking up early in California, but the thought of him can — instead of a 5 o’clock wakeup, he’s more a 4 o’clock wakeup.”
San Diego State couldn’t stop Fredette in both of its losses to BYU, or even in the Aztecs’ victory over the Cougars in the Mountain West tournament final. Walker shoots fewer 3-pointers than Fredette, but plays a mid-range game that Aztecs senior D.J. Gay says is “pretty close to perfect.”
While the Huskies have more history, the current Aztecs have more experience. Three of UConn’s top five scorers are freshmen, while San Diego State has three seniors — including Gay, the former star at nearby Long Beach Poly High School — backing Leonard, who’s from Riverside.
Although the Huskies are young, they arrived at UConn expecting to play for national prizes. Calhoun doesn’t expect his youngsters to be intimidated if they’re roundly outnumbered in Anaheim by San Diego State fans who made that short drive up the interstate.
“I’m pretty sure we’ll have a nice little fan base, because our fans travel very well,” said Walker, who believes the Huskies are underdogs. “A lot of people say that we can’t do things, but we love to prove people wrong. I think we have a pretty special opportunity to do that.”