ANAHEIM — The last time San Diego State played Arizona, Dwayne Polee Jr. did not get off the bench.
The 6-foot-8 junior was healthy when the Aztecs lost to the Wildcats 69-60 on Nov. 14, but coach Steve Fisher felt nine other players could help his team more than Polee at that point.
"It was really difficult because I'm a competitor," Polee said. "So I love the game. And nobody takes sitting out of an important game easily. It was hard, but I just kept working on my game, kept working hard in practice, getting with the coaches and trying to do whatever I had to do to get on the court."
Polee's hard work and good attitude did not go unnoticed. Not only did he gradually carve out a place in Fisher's rotation by the start of conference play, he also has since emerged as a badly needed perimeter shooter and secondary scoring option behind do-everything point guard Xavier Thames.
The biggest shot of Polee's season came Feb. 5 when he capped an incredible San Diego State second-half rally with a game-winning 3-pointer off a feed from Thames. In San Diego State's last four games, Polee has logged 27 or more minutes and scored 14 or more points.
Polee's season will come full circle Thursday night when fourth-seeded San Diego State gets a second crack at top-seeded Arizona with a berth in the Aztecs' first-ever Elite Eight on the line. This time Polee won't be a spectator. He will be what Fisher calls his sixth starter, a player the Aztecs count on for energy, defense and especially a scoring spark.
"We're a much, much better offensive team now than we were when we played them the second game of the season," Fisher said. "A tremendous amount has to do with the fact that Dwayne Polee did not even play in that first game and he's now getting a minimum 20 minutes per game. He can shoot the ball. He gives us now another perimeter scorer. He's probably our best athlete. He can guard multiple spots. So Dwayne Polee's emergence is a huge piece to the success we've had."
A former Los Angeles City player of the year as a senior in high school, Polee made an impact off the bench as a freshman at St. John's after becoming Steve Lavin's first signee. He averaged 4.4 points for the NCAA tournament-bound Johnnies, showing promise as a slasher and defensive stopper.
Upon transferring to San Diego State that offseason to be closer to his family, Polee spent a lot of time in the gym trying to add a more accurate jump shot to his arsenal. He had limited chances to show his improvement last season with senior Chase Tapley and NBA-bound Jamaal Franklin ahead of him in the rotation at wing, but both he and his teammates expected him to play a bigger role entering this season.
"if we went this far and he still wasn't playing, I would have thought something went wrong," center Skylar Spencer said. "I knew he always had this in him. We knew his time would come. Now he's playing all the time and It seems like every game he gets better."
Polee's minutes were sporadic in November and December. He played 17 minutes off the bench and scored 11 huge points in a victory over Creighton. A month later, he got just six minutes and two shots in an upset of Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.
What eventually won Fisher over was Polee's positive attitude, smarter decision making and improved practice habits.
"He gained a lot of my confidence with how he practiced," Fisher said. "Early on, Dwayne tried to go too fast. He'd get it and try to do three different things before he even caught the ball. He has slowed down and he's taking time to make a decision. Then when he started to perform in some crucial games, I said, 'Why haven't we seen this earlier or why haven't I given him the opportunity earlier?'
Polee's emergence gives San Diego State hope of improving on its 36 percent shooting from its first game against defensive-minded Arizona.
The Aztecs still aren't an efficient offensive team — defense, rebounding and a heavy dose of Thames off ball screens remain their calling cards. But if Polee can sustain his hot streak and Winston Shepard can emerge from his March slump, perhaps San Diego State can generate just enough offense to have a chance at the upset.
At the very least, Polee is eager to be able to contribute this time.
"I'm very excited," Polee said. "It's not even about just playing Arizona. I'm excited to be in the Sweet Sixteen itself no matter who we'll be playing. I didn't play in the first match‑up, but it's the second time around. I'm going to go out, bring a lot of energy to the game, try to pump my teammates up, try to pump the crowd up."
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