The Sweet 16 is where tournament dreams begin to transition. For the first weekend, there is a sense in which everyone is just happy to be there. Even the true big dogs of the tournament have a chance from Sunday until Thursday to draw a breath and reflect on what has been done so far. This year's field was so evenly balanced (all of the top 44 KenPom teams were in) that even a 14 seed like Georgia State was a legitimately good team. It's a four day cavalcade of genuinely good basketball.
By the time the first tip of the Sweet 16 goes up on Thursday, things have changed. Every team left is now acutely aware that two wins separate them from the grandest stage of college basketball. Every team knows, now that underdog VCU and George Mason teams have shown the way, that they can get there. The tournament is now out on the knife edge. The little fluff that there was has been excised from the field, there are no more easy outs.
It's into that crucible that Xavier steps to face one of the very best teams in the nation. When people are asked who can beat Kentucky this year, the Arizona Wildcats are frequently one of the names that comes up. Vegas has Xavier as a massive 11 point underdog. Even the usually conservative Ken Pomeroy system sees Xavier as a ten point loser. This is the Andrea Gail sailing smoothly out from Glouscter before turning at the Flemish Cap to see what was waiting. Much like the ill fated fishing vessel, there is no way out for Xavier but to go through.
So how can Xavier beat Arizona? Only three teams have managed it this season. UNLV on December 23rd, Oregon State on January 11th, and Arizona State on February 7th. For nearly six weeks the Wildcats have not only not lost, they've only played two games that wasn't decided by double digits and those were against Sweet 16 teams Utah and UCLA. They are rolling right now, but they aren't completely invincible.
1. Keep them off the offensive glass
Yes, that's all you have to do! In the losses against UNLV and Oregon St. the Wildcats didn't even grab 20% of their misses. (In the loss to Arizona St they grabbed 41.9%). Holding Arizona off the offensive glass limits the efficiency of their offense and doesn't allow them to make up for missing shots. In those two games the Wildcats shot 42.6% and 37.8% from the floor because they couldn't get easy stickbacks. Taking every reasonable chance to limit Arizona to one shot possessions may be the most apparent way to beat them. The bad news? Arizona ranks 47th in the nation by grabbing 35% of their misses. Xavier counters by being 34th in the nation and allowing only 27.3% of missed shots to be grabbed by the offense. It's going to be a battle all game long on the glass.
2. Challenge everything
First, the bad news. Arizona shoots 36.2% from deep. Thankfully, only 15 teams in the nation take fewer three pointers than the Wildcats. Where they do their damage is in the paint. They are 32nd in the nation in effective field goal percentage on the back of shooting 53.2% inside the arc. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Brandon Ashley all prefer to play inside the arc, only Stanley Johnson and Gabe York really stretch the defense. In their three losses the Wildcats shot their usual percentage from deep, but didn't shoot as well inside the arc and finished with an EFG% under 50%. Trying to force bad shots will be paramount for a Xavier defense that doesn't excel at doing that.
3. Knock down shots and grab your misses
I know, that seems simplistic. Frankly, there aren't a lot of ways to go head to head with Arizona and win. They are an excellent team that KenPom ranks right behind Kentucky. If not for the other Wildcats, Sean Miller's squad would be a prohibitive favorite to win the tournament. Two of the teams that beat them, Arizona St. and Oregon St., simply shot the lights out on their way to EFG% of 56.7% and 57.7% on the night. Those teams shot 46.7% and 45.5% from behind the arc and stretched out Arizona's packline to the breaking point, exactly the same thing teams have done to Xavier this year.
Arizona St. and UNLV also each fought through the best defensive rebounding team in the nation to grab 32% and 35% of their misses. Longer shots generating longer rebounds may explain some of that, or maybe they simply attacked the glass relentlessly on offense. Arizona doesn't want to run, so Xavier can send Matt Stainbrook, James Farr, and Jalen Reynolds after every missed shot without too much fear of breakouts.
Those are the ways that Arizona can be beaten. They are not myriad, and they are not easy. The matchup is not as bad as it could be, Villanova could still be in, but it's not a good one either. This will be a Herculean task for Chris Mack's Musketeers. It won't be easy, pretty, or sexy basketball, but if they pull it off it will go down as one of the biggest wins in program history.