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Honolulu no vacation for Arizona

Many fans and college basketball analysts are already looking ahead to a championship game between No. 4 Arizona and No. 18 San Diego State when the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii tips off this Saturday. While Arizona should cruise in its opening-round game against East Tennessee State, a second round matchup between the winner of Hawaii and Miami (Fl.) will prove anything but easy.

Solomon Hill's senior leadership on and off the court has Arizona ranked fourth nationally.

Hawaii and Miami are each very good basketball teams.

The Warriors (5-3), playing out of the Big West Conference, do have three losses this season. However, one included a heartbreaking 78-77 overtime loss to tenth-ranked Illinois. A second loss came against No. 24 UNLV on the road. Hawaii is averaging 43 rebounds per game and feature five players who average over nine points per game. If there’s a problem for the Warriors in a tournament setting it’s that Hawaii does not go deep into its bench, instead relying on six and sometimes seven players to get them through 40 minutes of action.

Miami (7-1) remains unranked, nationally, but is far from a pushover. The Hurricanes were upset by FCS school Florida-Gulf Coast in the second game of the season. As shocking as the 63-51 loss was at the time, it also served as an effective early-season wake up call. Miami has won its last five games, including victories over Detroit (77-62) and then-No. 13 Michigan State, 67-59. Durand Scott (15.6 ppg) and Shane Larkin (14.8) lead five Hurricanes in double figures scoring each night. The Hurricanes rely on an eight-man rotation, and as a team shoots 47.7 percent from the floor. Notably, Scott and Larkin have shot incredibly well this season. Scott is connecting on 58.8 percent of his field goals and 44.4 percent from behind the arc. Similarly, Larkin is shooting 55.0 percent from the floor and 51.7 percent from behind the 3-Point line. A further note is Scott did not play in Miami’s game against Florida-Gulf Coast.

Assuming Arizona does get past either Hawaii or Miami, and San Diego State wins its bracket, a showdown with the Aztecs will definitely prove to be a noteworthy tournament final.

SDSU (9-1) has won nine consecutive games following a season-opening loss against Syracuse (62-49) at the Carrier Classic, played outdoors on the flight deck of a U.S. carrier. The Aztecs have already beaten Pac-12 representatives USC (66-60) and UCLA (78-69), setting up a potential hat-trick against Arizona on Christmas Day. SDSU, much like Arizona, uses as many as 10 players in its rotation. The team is led by Jamaal Franklin’s 18.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Two other Aztecs, Chase Tapley (13.9 ppg) and Xavier Thames (10.4) average in double figures. SDSU is averaging 72 points per game and has held no less than seven opponents to 62 points or less this season.

Arizona enters the tournament on a roll.

The Wildcats are prohibitive favorites to win the Diamond Head Classic, further emboldened by last Saturday’s thrilling 65-64 upset over then-No. 5 Florida. Arizona came off its early season-defining victory by then throttling Oral Roberts on Tuesday, 89-64, by shooting 57.6 percent from the floor and holding the Golden Eagles to a 38.3 field goal percentage.

The Wildcats (9-0, 2-0 away) feature three players averaging in double figure scoring, led by the backcourt duo of Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson. Combined, the Arizona guards are averaging 27.5 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.8 steals per game. Solomon Hill, Arizona’s senior forward, is also off to a strong start this year doing a little bit of everything on the court. Through nine games, Hill is averaging 12.9 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals per outing while leading the team in minutes played at 30.6.

Early in the campaign, Arizona rattled off consecutive victories by final scoring margins of 21, 22, 43, and 28. However, when the schedule got tough, the tough remained going as Arizona defeated a gritty Southern Miss team by eight points before rallying to overcome Clemson on the road 66-54. Those tests, of course, were preludes to Arizona’s memorable win over Florida as the Wildcats outscored the Gators 7-0 in the final minute of regulation to win by a point after Lyons’ game-winning bucket with 7.1 seconds remaining.

Aside from Arizona’s matchup against ETSU, all three of Arizona’s other potential opponents enter this weekend’s holiday tournament playing well. The Wildcats have prided themselves on remaining focused on the task at hand so far this season. Still, the beaches of Hawaii have always served to play tricks on any team visiting the islands and Arizona will be no different. Arizona will experience a four-hour time difference in Hawaii, as well as having to overcome the challenge of having the proverbial target on its back. A particular concern would be playing local favorite Hawaii in round two. Hawaii nearly missed producing a significant upset over Illinois in Honolulu earlier this season and would be licking their chops at the opportunity to knock off the fourth-ranked team in the country in front of their hometown fans.

First round action begins Saturday Dec. 22. Here’s a quick rundown of the brackets:

BRACKET #1
Mississippi vs. Indiana State (ESPNU, 11 a.m. Hawaii Standard Time)
San Diego State vs. San Francisco (ESPNU, 1 p.m. HST)

BRACKET #2
Arizona vs. East Tennessee State (ESPNU, 5:30 p.m. HST)
Miami (Fl.) vs. Hawaii (ESPNU, 7:30 p.m. HST)

If Arizona wins and continues to remain in the championship bracket, the Wildcats will face the winner of Miami and Hawaii on Dec. 23 at 6:30 p.m HST. The game is scheduled to be televised on ESPN2. If Arizona loses its opening round game against ESTU, they will play on Dec. 23 at 4:00 p.m. HST on ESPNU.

*The Diamond Head Classic Championship game will be played on Christmas Day at 4:30 p.m. HST. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Follow me on Twitter @GaryRandazzo, and follow the website @WSRArizona.

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