San Diego State to face Creighton in first round of NCAA tournament

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) – Eighth-seeded San Diego State will face ninth-seeded Creighton in a Midwest Region first-round game Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, seeking its first victory in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since 2015.

“We’ve told every recruit since we got here, our goal is to play in a Final Four, to play for a national championship so we can’t have that goal and not win games in the tournament,” said Brian Dutcher, who is in his fifth season as San Diego State’s coach after being assistant head coach or associate head coach with the Aztecs the previous 18 seasons.

“The thing I want to make sure this year’s team does is play with incredible confidence, with a swagger, and not be afraid. You can’t be fearful of this time. You have to go out, embrace it, play like you belong here, play like you know you’re good, and play with great swagger.”

Oddsmakers have made San Diego State a 2- to 2 1/2-point favorite. The ABC News-owned data prediction website FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Aztecs a 55% chance of winning.

San Diego State (23-8) is the overall 31st seed in the 68-team tournament. The Bluejays (22-11) are the 33rd overall seed.

Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the ninth seeds have a 73-71 record against the eighth seeds in the first round.

The Aztecs have won six of their last seven games and 11 of their last 13. Both losses have come against Mountain West Conference champion Boise State by one point apiece, including 53-52 in Saturday’s Mountain West Conference tournament final. Each of the Aztecs’ last three losses have been by one point.

The game is a matchup of teams that lost in the finals of their conference tournaments. Creighton lost to Villanova, 54-48 in Saturday’s Big East Conference tournament final.

Both teams’ leading scorers are seniors playing their first seasons with their teams.

Guard Matt Bradley averaged 17.0 points per game to lead San Diego State and was selected as the MWC’s Newcomer of the Year by both coaches and media members. The 6-foot, 4-inch Bradley played the first three seasons of his college career at California.

Forward Ryan Hawkins averaged 13.9 points per game to lead the Bluejays after helping Northwest Missouri State win three Division II national championships in five seasons.

Bradley “creates his shots off the dribble and off the jab and uses pump fakes,” said Creighton guard Alex O’Connell. “It’s going to be a team effort in trying to hold him and limit his points.”

Dutcher called Hawkins “ideal for any program that could have got him.”

“He can really score that ball,” Dutcher said. “He’s good in the low post, he pivots, he gets around the defense. He’s got the quickest release I’ve seen all year. He catches it and gets it off.”

Creighton 7-foot-1 sophomore center Ryan Kalkbrenner was selected as the Big East Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in a vote of the conference’s coaches. Kalkbrenner’s 89 blocked shots are the ninth-most among Division I players.

Aztecs senior guard Adam Seiko is the brother of Bluejays freshman forward Arthur Kaluma. The two were both starters for the Ugandan national team last summer in the AfroBasket tournament in Rwanda.

Seiko is averaging 5.3 points in 28 games, including seven starts. Kaluma is Creighton’s fifth-leading scorer, averaging 9.9 points in 29 games, including 28 starts.

Kaluma said his brother is “the reason I play basketball today.”

“I used to go and watch him play his games and I’d see his approach to the game and his professionalism when it came to stuff like getting shots up on your own, really focusing on defense, watching film,” Kaluma said. “It was just inspirational to me and it really got me into the sport.”

Kaluma said at a news conference Wednesday the last time he played his brother in a one-on-one game he “busted” his nose.

“We were in a really intense game,” Kaluma said “I come down after making a layup, and my elbow hit him directly on his nose and he was leaking.”

More than 38% of Creighton’s points have come from freshmen, including guard Ryan Nembhard, fourth on the team, averaging 11.3 points in 27 games, all starts.

San Diego State will be making its third NCAA tournament appearance in Dutcher’s five seasons as coach, ninth in the last 13 years, 13th since becoming a Division I program in the fall of 1969 and 16th all-time, including three appearances in the College Division (now Division II) tournament.

The Aztecs would likely have been in the 2020 tournament which was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. San Diego State was 30-2 that season.

The Aztecs are 3-4 against Creighton, including an 83-52 victory in their most recent meeting, Nov. 28, 2019, in a semifinal of the Las Vegas Invitational. Five current San Diego State players played in that game — Seiko and fellow guard Trey Pulliam and forwards Aguek Arop, Nathan Mensah  and Keshad Johnson.

The game is set to begin at 4:27 p.m. and will be televised by cable’s truTV.

The San Diego State-Creighton winner will face the winner of Thursday’s game between top-seeded Kansas and 16th-seeded Texas Southern in a second-round game Saturday.

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