Arizona head coach Sean Miller faces his former team, Cinderella story Xavier
Following a legend is no easy task, but Arizona head coach Sean Miller has done so admirably. Hired in 2009 as the indirect replacement for Hall of Famer Lute Olson, Miller's enjoyed a successful tenure in the desert. The 2017 NCAA Tournament marks his fifth time overseeing a team that reached at least the Sweet 16 since ‘11, and is the fourth time in five seasons the Wildcats have played into the second weekend.
For as much as Miller's won at Arizona, his own replacement at Xavier – head coach Chris Mack – has performed just as well.
Miller coached Musketeer teams in 2008 and ‘09 to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. In the seasons since with Mack at the helm, Xavier's been to four other Sweet 16s, including this year. The Musketeers' last journey to this point in the Tournament ended in a wildly competitive 2015 game against Miller and the Wildcats.
Xavier made its way to the Sweet 16 this year most improbably. XU opened the season ranked in the Top 25, and a trendy pick to contend for the Final Four. Losing point guard Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL in January doomed the Musketeers to a six-game slide. From Feb. 8 to March 8, their only wins were three over lowly DePaul.
With an upset of Butler in the Big East Tournament, however, Xavier booked its ticket to the Big Dance, and made the most of it with wins over Maryland and Florida State. The No. 11-seeded Musketeers destroyed the ACC's Seminoles 91-66 in the Round of 32 behind 29 points from Trevon Bluiett.
The only double-digit seed left in the Tournament has the momentum to spring another upset against a coach who knows the program well.
West Region: No. 11 Xavier Musketeers (23-13) vs. No. 2 Arizona Wildcats (32-4)
When: 10:09 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: SAP Center (San Jose, Calif.)
Line: Arizona -7.5
Keys for Xavier
Chris Mack isn't married to any one defensive strategy, instead employing man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone depending on the situation. Zone defenses have given Arizona trouble this season, in particular the trapping 1-3-1. UCLA used the look to stymie the Wildcats in a Bruins win at McKale Center last month, and Arizona can expect plenty of the look on Thursday.
Xavier's 1-3-1 forces opponents into rushed 3-point attempts. Nearly 40 percent of all field-goal attempts taken against the Musketeers are from deep, per KenPom.com, but shots drop only 33 percent of the time.
Arizona's had success shooting from long range this season, connecting on better than 39 percent, but the Wildcats have to effectively establish their dribble-drive offense to free up shooters. If Xavier can clog lanes of penetration and contest shots effectively, the Musketeers will control tempo – and controlling tempo is critical in this matchup.
Keys for Arizona
Arizona’s play on the glass has been critical this season. Last Saturday's win over Saint Mary's offered a snapshot of the full campaign, as the Gaels led when they enjoyed a commanding edge on the boards. As the Wildcats erased that advantage, so too went Saint Mary's lead.
Arizona's last loss came in February against UCLA in a game the Bruins owned on the boards. In particular, UCLA capitalized on extra looks off the offensive glass. The Wildcats face a Xavier team with similar ability to own the boards.
Xavier ranks No. 29 nationally in offensive rebound percentage, making effective use of its collective size. Mack's lineup is actually the eighth tallest in all of college basketball. Of the few bigger, one is Arizona.
Miller needs aggressive – and foul-free – play out of Dusan Ristic, Keanu Pinder and Chance Comanche. The rotation of big men all proved effective in Arizona's comeback vs. Saint Mary's, and will serve similarly critical roles against Xavier.
Mack vs. Miller is among the more intriguing coaching chess matches of the Sweet 16 slate. The two know each other well, and not surprisingly, they employ similar styles. Both also have wing players who can take over a high-profile game like this one in Trevon Bluiett for Xavier and Allonzo Trier for Arizona.
While 7-foot stretch-four Lauri Markkanen might seem like the x-factor for Arizona, Kadeem Allen's defensive presence could make the difference for the Wildcats – and not necessarily by matching up with Bluiett. JP Macura is often the Musketeers’ secondary scoring option who can make opponents pay for focusing too heavily on Bluiett.
Arizona's perimeter defense on Macura and hot-shooting Malcolm Bernard could prove pivotal – especially if the Wildcats can keep Xavier off the boards effectively.
Prediction: Arizona 76, Xavier 68