UConn, San Diego State embracing Sweet 16 showdown in Boston

College Sports

“It’s super special. That’s what we worked so hard to do this season, to go from Brooklyn to Boston.”

UConn forward and Southborough native Alex Karaban talks to the media ahead of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Sweet 16 round game at TD Garden.

One of the challenges that comes with being the top-overall seed in the NCAA tournament is a massive target on your back, and defending champion UConn is embracing it.

Last year, the Huskies were able to fly somewhat under the radar as a No. 4 seed. That’s not happening this year. UConn has beaten its first two opponents in this year’s tournament by an average of 28 points and is the favorite to win it all.

“The national championship team, they’re always going to be hunted the next year,” UConn forward Jaylin Stewart said. “It’s pretty hard for them to win it again, and we’re trying to break that curse this year.”

No team probably has more motivation to take down UConn than San Diego State, which lost to the Huskies in the title game last year.

Thursday’s matchup at TD Garden is what college basketball dreams are made of: a national championship rematch between the Huskies and the Aztecs in the Sweet 16.

“We knew we wanted to get back to the national title game,” said San Diego State guard Lamont Butler, who hit the buzzer-beater that put SDSU in the title game against UConn last year. “So, we were just playing hard to try to get back to this point. Now, we play UConn again and it’s just like a revenge game for us. So, we can’t wait.”

A key difference from last year’s San Diego State team is the development of forward Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior had never averaged more than 8 points per game in a season before this year. He’s averaging twice as many points (21.5) and rebounds (8.4) than any other Aztec.

“This is to Jaedon’s credit more than anything,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “He was capable of doing a lot of this last year, but I had Matt Bradley on the team, and he dominated the ball a lot, and for good reason. He was a really good player, and I didn’t need Jaedon dominating the ball too.”

“He waited his turn. He was patient. He kept putting his work in. It’s not as big a surprise to the coaching staff as it is to maybe to the country as a whole that Jaedon is this good. We knew he was this good. He was just waiting for his opportunity, and that’s a credit to him to be willing to do that.”

Opponents are averaging 66.2 points per game against San Diego State, which makes the Aztecs’ mark 27th best in the country.

UConn coach Dan Hurley described his team’s balance on offense and defense as “bulletproof.”

The formula for a bulletproof team, he said, is elite offense, elite defense, tremendous rebounding, and the willingness to play with utter desperation to out-hustle opponents and win in a variety of ways. He pointed to the Huskies’ second-round 75-58 win over Northwestern, during which UConn shot 3 for 22 from 3-point range, as an example.

UConn is holding opponents to 63.8 points per game, which puts them 12th in the country in scoring defense. They’re ranked eighth in rebound margin, and they’re also in the top 25 in points per game (81.6).

All five UConn starters (Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer, Alex Karaban, Donovan Klingan, and Stephon Castle) are averaging double-figures in scoring.

“You can’t deny when you watch this team play that it’s a fun team to watch,” Hurley said. “Because the ball moves, and we share it, and we play for each other. You can see the culture. You can see the energy.”

“You can see the commitment to defense. You can see the personalities up and down the organization. It’s been a great team. It’s just been a fun team. I think we’ve got — we finally have kind of figured out the formula.”

The Huskies also have history on their mind. If they can make it out of this week’s regional and eventually repeat as champions, they would become the first team to do it since Florida in 2007 when Al Horford suited up for the Gators.

UConn forward Karaban, a Southborough native, said it means a lot to have the opportunity to chase history in the same building where Horford now plays for the Celtics.

“It’s super special. That’s what we worked so hard to do this season, to go from Brooklyn to Boston. That’s why we wanted the No. 1 seed so badly, not only to experience the local regions near us but to have the UConn fans come out and support us too.”

“We know that they travel and support us through everything, so it’s going to be super special to see them (Thursday) and competing at Barclays last week and now at TD Garden this week. It’s special.”

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