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Arizona vs. San Diego State preview: Wildcats, Aztecs have evolved since first meeting

When the Arizona Wildcats take the floor for their Sweet 16 matchup Thursday, they’ll be doing so against a familiar foe.

The top-seeded Wildcats played San Diego State in each of the last two seasons, with the Wildcats winning both — including a 69-60 contest in San Diego earlier this season on Nov. 14 after taking down the Aztecs in the final seconds of the championship game in last season’s Diamond Head Class.

And that’s not where the familiarity ends. Both teams are defensive-minded, holding opponents to worse than 40 percent from the floor. The Wildcats boast the most efficient defense in the country, at 87.2 points per 100 possessions, while San Diego State yields 90.3.

But while the name on the opponent’s jerseys will look familiar to each team Thursday, the teams wearing them may not.

One key player for the Wildcats has seen his season come to an end while another has been coming on strong. For the No. 4-seed Aztecs, two players with key roles didn’t even see the floor against Arizona in that first matchup.

Here’s a look at the biggest changes since the first meeting:

For Arizona

Defense has long been the calling card for this year’s Arizona team, but the offense has emerged as a dangerous one. The Wildcats have excelled at turning defense into easy transition buckets, and with the likes of T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson running the break, that’s a dangerous combination.

Still, this Arizona team isn’t the same one that won 21 straight games and spent eight weeks at the No. 1 spot in the AP poll. Here’s a look at what has changed for the Wildcats:

Loss of Ashley

Brandon Ashley didn’t play a huge role in Arizona’s win over SDSU earlier this season — he scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in 25 minutes — but the threat of what Ashley could do may be what the Wildcats miss most.

Ashley was one of Arizona’s biggest outside scoring threats, and he had the ability to create penetration off the dribble. The UA offense struggled in its first few games without him, but seems to have found a groove with sophomore guard Gabe York inserted into his place in the starting lineup.

Holllis-Jefferson coming on strong

Hollis-Jefferson has been a big piece of Arizona all season, but his role has only increased since Ashley’s injury — as well as his production.

Hollis-Jefferson scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds in just 18 minutes of floor time in the first meeting this season, a number that’s sure to rise this time around. The 6-foot-7 freshman has made his mark defensively, and he can guard every position on the floor.

Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive game has also come on strong of late — he scored 13 points in the UA’s tournament opener against Weber State and added a career-high 18 in its third-round win over Gonzaga.

For San Diego State

It’s no secret that San Diego State makes its impact as a defensive team. That led the Aztecs to a 31-4 record with just one home loss — the aforementioned game against Arizona.

Standouts Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard highlight a San Diego State team that’s talented, though it can badly struggle offensively at times. But what has changed since earlier in the season? Here’s a look:

Polee stepping up

Junior guard Dwayne Polee didn’t see the floor in San Diego State’s first meeting with Arizona this season.

Now he’s the Aztecs’ third-leading scorer.

Polee has emerged in a perimeter role, shooting 47 percent for San Diego State, and a team-best 38 percent from 3-point range. He scores 8.4 points per game in just under 18 minutes, and the 6-foot-7 swingman has become a key part of the San Diego State offense.

Quinn finds a roll

Junior guard Aqueel Quinn transferred to San Diego State after two season at Cal State Northridge, and it’s finally paying dividends.

Like Polee, Quinn didn’t see any action in the Actecs’ loss to Arizona earlier this season. But he’s turned into a solid contributor, scoring five points per game to go along with an assist in 16 minutes. Quinn is able to spell Thames for stretches, and while he’s not the same player, the San Diego State offense can at least still pose a threat with Thames out of the game.

Quinn shoots 36 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range in his action as one of the last players in the Aztecs’ nine-man rotation.