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NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: Xavier v. Arizona Preview

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Xavier hasn't been to the Elite Eight since the 2008 run. Tonight, they get another chance against the Wildcats of Arizona.

Xavier needs Big Game James
Xavier needs Big Game James
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the pregame buildup for this one has focused on the meeting of Xavier with former coach Sean Miller, who was instrumental in getting the career of current coach Chris Mack off the ground. While that is certainly as fascinating of a subplot as you are likely to find in Thursday's action, the fact remains that there is also what has the potential to be a riveting basketball game on hand, with the ever-increasing stakes of the NCAA Tournament making things even more interesting.

Arizona is a team who only lost 3 games this year, and curiously enough none of them came against teams that landed in the field of 68. They were 6-0 against tournament competition in the regular season, with only fellow 2 seed Gonzaga even making it close. All this paints a picture of a team that can handle anybody on their night, but is there for the taking if they are off.

Team Fingerprint:

On defense, the Wildcats play mostly man, relying on the athleticism of their backcourt to force opponents into turnovers and bad shots, while their bigs kill possessions with rebounds. TJ McConnell reaps the lions share of the steals, but look for Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's length to play a factor as well. With size to spare on the perimeter and 7 footer Kaleb Tarczewski at center, it is little surprise that Arizona is the top defensive rebounding team in the nation, pulling down 78% of their opponents misses. Opponents do not find much luck from behind the arc, either, where they shoot 33% and get only 27% of their points. If you have absolute horses down low, you have the best shot of scoring on Arizona of anyone, which is to say not great.

On offense, Arizona is efficient, if not spectacular. The only things they do not do at a very high level is shoot the three pointer (36%) and shoot free throws (71%). Other than that, they take care of the ball well, get good shots inside the arc due to McConnell's vision, and have three starters in the top 500 offensive rebounders. Despite their average free throw shooting, their volume from the line makes them a threat there as well, given that they are also one of the best teams in the nation at getting there. The key to stopping their offense is to limit them to one shot per trip. They rely on being the only team on the court killing possessions after one shot, so bucking that trend is essential to stopping them.

Starters:

Starting matchups
TJ McConnell Point guard Dee Davis
Senior Class Senior
6'1", 195 Measurements 6'0", 170
10.1/3.9/6.3 Game line 8.9/2.4/6.0
.502/.343/.800 Shooting line .396/.318/.725
McConnell is at his best when he's free to distribute, as evidenced by his Pac-12 leading 39.9% assist rate in conference play. When enticed to try to get his own basket, he's an average finisher who prefers to pull up from the right side of the lane. His three-point shot is unspectacular, but he can score it from both wings.
Stanley Johnson Shooting guard Remy Abell
Freshman Class Junior
6'6", 225 Measurements 6'4", 195
14.0/6.6/1.7 Game line 8.5/2.0/1.3
.447/.373/.736 Shooting line .493/.413/.705
Those are Johnson's dimensions on the roster; some have cited him as playing at as large as 245. He's a bull. Despite that, he's a mediocre finisher, shooting only 50% at and around the rim. That is obviously somewhat redeemed by the fact that he shoots 40%+ from both wings and the top of the key. He's not much of a threat from either corner. Johnson is about as good an offensive rebounder as you're likely to see lining up at the two.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Small forward Trevon Bluiett
Sophomore Class Freshman
6'7", 215 Measurements 6'6", 215
11.3/6.9/1.6 Game line 11.3/4.3/2.0
.506/.214/.703 Shooting line .427/.336/.746
Younger brother of former A-10 foe Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. Good on Mrs. Hollis-Jefferson for getting both of these boys to pay for their own schooling. Rondae is a good finisher but not a scorer from anywhere else on the floor. He is, however, an incredibly talented defender who can guard 2-4 and go and get it on the glass at both ends.
Brandon Ashley Power forward James Farr
Junior Class Junior
6'8", 230 Measurements 6'10", 247
12.2/5.3/0.7 Game line 4.3/5.4/0.4
.513/.343/.691 Shooting line .429/.295/.469
Bad news: a four who can shoot. Good news: just 12 made threes on the year. When he does shoot from distance, Ashley prefers working from the corners. Most of his points come from around the basket though, where he'll work off of either block or on the dribble drive. He's an adequate defensive rebounder but really goes to the offensive glass hard.
Kaleb Tarczewski Center Matt Stainbrook
Junior Class Senior
7'0", 235 Measurements 6'10", 270
9.2/5.1/0.3 Game line 12.1/6.9/2.4
.579/.000/.676 Shooting line .616/.250/.767
Tarczewski scores from the post and occasionally on short jumpers from either baseline. Like Ashley, he's an adequate rebounder and a good but not great rim protector. He has a height advantage on Stainbrook; how that actually plays will be a big factor in the result of this game.


Reserves:
The most interesting player coming off of the bench is 6'3" guard Gabe York, who gets 9.1/2.1/1.3 per game on .439/.396/.814 shooting. More than 2/3rds of his shots have come from beyond the arc; none of Arizona's starters gun from deep at a rate of higher than 1/4 of their total shot attempts. York splashed 5-9 against OSU; identifying and containing him will be key in effectively zoning 'Zona.

Aside from York, Elliot Pitts is a 6'5" wing who gets about 15 minutes per game and puts up 3.6/1.1/0.4 on .393/.356/.792 shooting. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is the only other reserve getting 10 MPG; he's a 5'8" freshman PG who distributes well but struggles with turnover problems from time to time.

Three questions:

Can Xavier hold serve on the glass? Mark this down, if Xavier allows Arizona to get their usual 35% offensive rebounding rate, they'll lose. The Musketeers don't have a lot of advantages in this game, but the combination of Stainbrook, Reynolds, and Farr may be one of them. Farr in particular needs to be effective enough offensively that his rebounding prowess stays in the game. Xavier has to hammer the glass on both ends because Arizona only allows 22% of opponent's misses to turn into offensive rebounds. The Musketeers probably also won't win if that number stays that low.

Zone or man? Xavier would rather play man in order to help keep the Wildcats off the glass. Xavier would rather play zone to make the Wildcats beat them from deep. Both of those statements are true, but they can't both happen at the same time. In games like this there is a sense in which you must choose your poison, and that holds true for Coach Mack today.

What pace will the game be played at? Xavier is best served by keeping this thing as slow as possible. Arizona is at their best when they are scoring quickly. Arizona's average possession is 16.7 seconds, 35th fastest in the nation, and their adjust tempo brings them in at 92nd in the nation.Xavier is roughly 80 spots lower on each list. Upsets happen when the underdog either forces a frenetic pace, or plays a brutally efficient slow pace. The Musketeers are probably best served to try the latter.

Three keys:

Jalen Reynolds: Jalen hasn't had the best of weeks, but the furor over the original announcement of the investigation seems to have died quickly. For Xavier to be in this game at the end, Jalen has to play right on the ragged edge but avoid the foul trouble and technicals that have become his calling card. 25-30 minutes of top of the line Jalen are a must tonight. Bring the Georgia State game again, and this game doesn't end how the national media thinks it will.

Make threes: Xavier needs to score inside, and to do that against Arizona you have to stretch them out a bit. The Wildcats don't allow many threes, only 31.3% of field goal attempts are from deep, and don't allow many makes, teams only shoot 32.9% against them. Still, they've been gashed on occasion this year, and on two of those occasions they lost.

Don't allow a prolonged run: Arizona's defense is too good for Xavier's offense to throw up large amounts of points in a short amount of time. If the Wildcats go 14-2 or something like that, Xavier is looking at a hole it will be hard to dig out of. It's hard to keep a team from ever going on a run against you, but to pull this upset Xavier has to stay in touching distance for 40 minutes.