Let’s get this out of the way early: Sean Miller used to coach at Xavier. He was a great coach and a great recruiter for the Musketeers. He and Coach Mack were and remain friends despite the way Miller left which, while it wasn’t as slimy and duplicitous as Thad Matta, wasn’t exactly all above board. Miller is a great coach, Mack is a great coach, and neither of them is going to waste much time thinking about the other much this week. That’s the ESPN depth of reporting for this game. Now, let’s get to the rest.
Arizona is very good this year. The worst team they lost to was Butler and that was a four pointer on a neutral court on Black Friday. Other than that, the Wildcats have dropped games Gonzaga, UCLA, and Oregon. Other than Gonzaga, they avenged those losses on their march to the Pac 12 tournament championship. To get to the Sweet 16 they somnambulated past North Dakota in the first round and then dispatched a very good St. Mary’s squad in the second round. They’re a national championship contender no matter how you would choose to define that term.
Xavier comes up against them as the team riding the dream. Left for dead in February, the Musketeers came off the mat in the snarling underdog role that seems to suit the team and its coach the best. Maryland was overseeded and X won a game that they should have. No national pundit gave them much of a chance against a fast, big, athletic Florida St team that was a trendy darkhorse pick. Behind a Trevon Bluiett dripping with swagger and Tyrique Jones dunking and mean mugging like a man with several points to prove, the Musketeers crushed the Seminoles in 30 minutes and spent the end of the game cruising in a doubter silencing victory lap.
Arizona has no obvious weaknesses. They very much prefer not to shoot from deep, but when they do, it goes in 39.6% of the time. They don’t turn the ball over, they are effective at the line and get there a lot, and they get on the glass when they do miss.
Defensively they aren’t quite as good, coming in 24th in the nation as opposed to the 17th they are offensively. The Wildcats don’t cause many turnovers or block a great deal of shots, preferring to sit in Miller’s version of the packline and dare you to shoot well enough to beat them. Teams shoot 48% inside the arc against them, which is a midpack number, but fewer teams do better against the three pointer than Arizona does. Teams shoot 30% behind the arc and do get very many chances at all to grab those misses.
|Allen is a big body guard who can shoot but isn't great with taking care of the ball. He and Trier both initiate the offense from time to time.
|Trier is as good as people like to pretend Melo Trimble is. He's efficient, picks his spots from deep, and finishes well at the line.
|Alkins is built like Trier with a bit more bulk and as such will spend more time on the glass. He's another excellent shooter from behind the arc.
|This guy can flat out play. We show him opposite Bluiett, but Coach Mack may juggle things and go with two bigs tonight. Markannen is a threat anywhere on the floor at any time he catches the ball.
|Ristic is just as effective inside as Markannen, but won't step out to the arc. He's a monster on the glass as well.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright backs up the guard positions and better distributing the ball than either Trier or Allen. He’s also an excellent shooter when left alone. Kobi Simmons is a 6-5 swingman who is the leading scorer with 8.8 per game off the bench. Chance Comanche isn’t the third seven footer on the team, but he’s only an inch off it. He’s effective in the post and a good rebounder, but he’s prone to post turnovers. The final bench piece is Keanu Pinder, a 6-9 rebounding menace who isn’t nearly as gifted offensively as the rest of bigs on the squad.
- Who wins the coaching battle? Both Miller and Mack are great coaches. The narrative that Coach Mack can’t adjust mid-game is increasingly looking like last year’s story as Xavier has beaten Butler, Maryland, and to some extent, Florida St, by dominating the second period. Still, early season failures loom and you can bet that Sean Miller will have a gameplan that he thinks will counter whatever Mack concocts with his time off.
- What does Tre have in the tank? Xavier is going as far as Trevon Bluiett will take them. That’s not disputable. Against Florida St. he briefly seized control of the game with a barrage of three pointers that left the Seminoles staggering. Arizona is a great team, but if Tre heats up like he can, there’s no stopping him right now.
- How does Xavier stop Lauri Markkanen? If you aren’t familiar with Finnish, you can be forgiven for thinking that name belongs to a girl. It doesn’t. In fact, it belongs to a seven footer with a 130 offensive efficiency rating who is shooting 43% behind the arc. Markannen isn’t just a pick and pop shooter though, he’s in the top 400 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate.
- Shoot well: If you have an effective field goal percentage over 50% against the Wildcats, you have a chance. That’s happened 14 times against Arizona, and it happened in all four of their losses. Bump that number up to just 51% and you have a coin flip chance of winning the game.
- Steal something: Against UCLA it was the Bruins getting on the offensive glass, against Butler and Oregon, it was forcing the Wildcats to turn the ball over, against Gonzaga it was the Wildcats shooting badly. In every game that Arizona has lost, their opponent has taken one of their traditional strengths and taken it from them.
- Ride the magic: Five weeks ago Xavier lost to Villanova and slipped into a six game losing streak. That should have killed them, but it didn’t. They got right against DePaul and the belief started to grow, they locked up a bid by beating Butler, and then they punched Florida St. squarely in the mouth and never let up. In multiple games in there the paper didn’t look good. It doesn’t again here, but this team is swaggering again, Trevon is firing, and the defense has suddenly rediscovered the body bags. Anything is possible.