On Christmas night in Honolulu, either Arizona or San Diego State will give its fans the ideal holiday gift: bragging rights.
The winner of the Diamond Head Classic title game between the fourth-ranked Wildcats and the 18th-ranked Aztecs will be able to stake claim to the title of college basketball's best team in the West. Gonzaga and UNLV also belong in that conversation, but neither would have as strong an early-season resume as a victorious Arizona or San Diego State would.
Arizona (12-0) is one of five remaining unbeaten teams nationally thanks to impressive victories over Florida, Miami and Clemson in the past two weeks. San Diego State (11-1) has won 11 straight games since a season-opening loss to Syracuse, a streak that includes victories away from home over UCLA and USC.
Tuesday night's showdown will provide Arizona's seniors a chance to avenge two previous losses to San Diego State from the Sean Miller era. The Aztecs clobbered the Wildcats 63-46 three years ago and rode a 21-4 first-half run to a 61-57 win at McKale Center last season.
This is clearly a better Arizona team than either of those, however, thanks to leadership from veterans Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom and a talent infusion from Xavier transfer Mark Lyons and a promising freshman class. Here's a look at four factors that should help determine whether San Diego State can spring an upset or whether Arizona can remain unbeaten heading into Pac-12 play:
1. Can Arizona limit its turnovers? As you might expect from a team that lacks a true point guard on its roster, turnovers have been an issue for Arizona so far this season. They average 15.1 per game and committed 34 in two games in Honolulu so far. Against a team that defends as well as San Diego State does, better ball handling would benefit Arizona. Although the Wildcats have shot an efficient 48.6 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from behind the arc, it's unlikely they'll hit their averages against the Aztecs, who have held opponents to 38.3 percent shooting and are in the top 10 nationally in points per possession allowed.
2. Will San Diego State's jump shots be falling? Take away San Diego State's 1 of 22 performance against Syracuse in a near-hurricane on the deck of the USS Midway, and the notoriously streaky Aztecs have shot the 3-point ball rather well so far this season. They're 39.8 percent from behind the arc in their 11 wins since that season-opening loss and they're averaging 18.2 attempts per game. It will be particularly crucial for San Diego State to shoot a high percentage from behind the arc on Christmas night because Arizona's size advantage in the paint may make scoring on put-backs or attacking the rim off the dribble difficult for Aztecs. Opponents are shooting below 40 percent from the field against Arizona inside the arc.
3. Can Arizona exploit its size advantage inside? Although Arizona gets most of its scoring from the perimeter, its trio of freshman big men will have an opportunity to impact Tuesday's game with their size and strength. Seven-foot, 255-pound Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-10 Grant Jerrett and 6-8 Brandon Ashley should be able to alter shots in the paint and out-muscle an undersized San Diego State frontcourt that relies on quickness and athleticism to compensate for its lack of brawn. Arizona's big men did a masterful job exploiting a matchup advantage against Miami on Sunday. With center Reggie Johnson sidelined by a thumb injury and the Canes lacking bulk in the paint, Arizona dominated the glass, grabbing 13 offensive rebounds and winning the rebounding battle 44-19.
4. Can Solomon Hill hold Jamaal Franklin in check? The reigning Mountain West player of the year has picked up where he left off last season, averaging 17.9 points and 9.9 boards and scoring in double figures in all 12 of San Diego State's games. Franklin's 3-point shooting remains erratic, but he is at his best attacking the rim, contributing to his nearly eight free throw attempts per game this season. Although Franklin delivered a season-best 28 points against UCLA earlier this month, he'll face far stronger defense against Arizona. Senior Solomon Hill is a versatile forward with the length, athleticism and competitiveness to make Franklin work hard for his baskets.
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