Opening with Aztecs, Vols get big challenge

Pearl says the Mountain West Conference is "by far" the best league west of the Big 12.

KNOXVILLE -- Considering San Diego State is 2,200 miles from the Tennessee campus and is rarely seen on national television, Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl knew an impressive amount of basic information on the Aztecs on Sunday night.

"They're a good team, and (coach) Steve Fisher does a great job," Pearl said less than 20 minutes after the NCAA tournament bracket was announced. "I know they're a big team. I know they're a really good offensive team, and a really good rebounding team.

"We're going to spend the night getting ready for them, and I'll tell you a lot more about them tomorrow."

Come Monday morning, Pearl's feelings hadn't changed much. His initial suspicions were confirmed. The No. 11 seed Aztecs (25-8) look like a formidable first-round foe for the No. 6 seed Vols (25-8).

"They're a really, really good 11 seed," Pearl said.

San Diego State's Mountain West Conference received the same number of NCAA bids -- four -- as the Southeastern Conference. And the Aztecs won the MWC tournament by beating UNLV in Las Vegas.

Pearl said the Mountain West was "by far the best conference" west of the Big 12. He specifically said it was better than the Pacific-10.

"San Diego State will come in very well-prepared against the likes of an NCAA team, because they've played against BYU, UNLV and New Mexico, and they've beaten some of those teams," Pearl said. "They're a very talented team, particularly on the front line. They're not super deep at guard, but they've got great balance, and they've got three starting forwards that are all really, really accomplished players.

"Every guy we've got will have a really good matchup."

The Aztecs remind Pearl of his own team in many ways -- starting with their pace.

"While they don't like to run a lot, they can and they will," Pearl said. "They're patient. That's Steve Fisher's nature."

The former Michigan coach also has a balanced offense. The Aztecs, like the Vols, don't have a single player averaging more than 13 points per game but don't have many who score fewer than six.

"Obviously, they can play ball or they wouldn't be in the tournament," UT junior center Brian Williams said. "They've got size, they've got talent and they've won a lot more games than they've lost. That tells you a lot right there."

The Aztecs led the Mountain West in scoring defense, allowing 61.8 points per game. They have what Pearl called "very unusual" rebounding statistics. Their plus-6.7 rebounding margin led the MWC and was 14th nationally out of 334 teams.

"Coach Pearl said sometimes they miss shots just so they can go (rebound) them," sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said. "They're aggressive. They rebound so well on the offensive end. We definitely have to keep them off the glass.

"We have to help our bigs rebound. That's what could separate us in this game, is the guards rebounding down."

Regardless, UT's frontcourt must keep the active Aztecs' big men away from the rim.

Pearl said 6-foot-8, 235-pound junior forward Billy White reminds him of former South Carolina star Renaldo Balkman. He's also left-handed, which presents an additional challenge.

"He's bouncy, quick, a big leaper and a guy that can really score," Pearl said.

Pearl said Aztecs freshman Kawhi Leonard -- a versatile 6-7 forward -- was a mix of LSU's Tasmin Mitchell and Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor. UT's coach said Leonard developed into the best high school player in Los Angeles near the end of his senior season but turned down late offers from several Pac-10 programs and stuck with his early pledge to SDSU.

"He was a great, great get for them," Pearl said. "He's the best freshman in their league, and he'd probably be the best freshman in a lot of leagues. He'd probably be the best freshman in the Pac-10."

UT senior wing J.P. Prince noted that the Vols weren't "a team full of little guys."

"I think we'll be fine with our size," Prince added. "We should be good on the boards if we just battle. They're not bigger than us at really any position."

But the Aztecs also bring Illinois transfer Brian Carwell -- a 6-11, 297-pound center -- off the bench.

"You've got to do the little things against these guys," Vols senior point guard Bobby Maze said. "You've got to block them out across the board, or they'll kill you on the glass."

Other contacts for Wes Rucker at www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

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