What were you thinking? With 50 seconds left and Xavier getting ready to inbound the ball, who were you thinking was going to shoot it? Almost everyone in the arena, on television, or listening to Byron and Joe was expecting a long possession ending with the ball in Trevon Bluiett’s hands. That made sense, after all, Bluiett had recovered from his mini-slump and had 25 points including five in the last minute as Xavier furiously stormed back into the game. With everyone expecting the ball in Trevon’s hands, that’s exactly where it landed, but only for a second.
To get to the point that a last minute possession mattered, Xavier had to have a plan against one of the best teams in college basketball. Arizona came into the game as the prohibitive favorite against a Xavier team that most pundits gave little chance. While Coach Mack had been getting some credit, nearly every game preview (and even a comment or two on here) gave Sean Miller the edge in terms of coaching. That has surely changed now.
We noted that in two of Arizona’s games this year they had struggled with teams that played some zone. Xavier came out in a man, but quickly switched to their 2-3 zone that switches in and out of a 1-1-3 as JP pursues the ball. The zone effectively took away post feeds to Ristic and Markannen and goaded Arizona into exactly what Xavier needed them to do. The Wildcats shot 3-16 from behind the arc in the first half as they were able to rotate to find semi-contested three pointers whenever they wanted them.
That strategy was playing with fire if Arizona got hot, but Coach Mack knew that Arizona had the habit of suffering game long shooting slumps. What he knew his team couldn’t do was man up against superior athletes the entire game for fear of dribble penetration or easy feeds into the seven footers with such deft touch. Mack was willing to gamble that Arizona wouldn’t shoot his team out of the zone in order to keep the ball in front of them But for one hitch, it worked.
That hitch was offensive rebounding. To start the game, Mack went with Tyrique Jones inside since he has the strength to fight Ristic to a halt. Unfortunately, Jones wasn’t finishing and was content to get in jumping contests with the seven footers. You don’t win many of those. Mack instead went with Sean O’Mara and Kaiser Gates to combat the three point and rebounding barrage. Gates gave the Musketeers length to contest some of the looks that Arizona was getting. O’Mara gave the Musketeers another offensive weapon as well as their best defensive rebounder for the game.
That helped, but Arizona dominated the glass in the first half. After two minutes in the second half, Coach Mack packed the zone in even deeper, essentially completely conceding the arc in order to keep Arizona off the glass. This involved pulling Bluiett and Malcolm Bernard back under the hoop and leaving just Macura and Gates to chase up top. The zone became more of a 1-1-3. Xavier also started to mix in more man to man or 1-3-1 on alternating trips. Both Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright started to attack what they thought was a zone only to realize they were up against a man to man.
Offensively, Coach Mack emphasized penetrate and pitch or post feed tactics early on in the game. Chris Webber was confused by that, as he thought it played into the Wildcats shot blocking. It did, but Zona blocked only one shot and instead watched Ristic, Kobi Simmons, and Kadeem Allen get into early foul trouble. Simmons was a particular issue with his length and athleticism, but ended up playing only five minutes instead of his usual 23. X continued driving and feeding their post men (they outscored Arizona 38-32 in the paint) and eliminated the chances of their own shooting having a chance to betray them by only taking 16 three pointers for the entire game.
And that brings us back to that final possession. Coach Mack had been using Trevon Bluiett as a decoy in the second half. Multiple times, he set a shooter screen to free JP on a curl or flex cut while the defense hedged. JP, to his credit, took those chances and dished out three second half assists. With 50 seconds left, Coach Mack switched things up and freed Bluiett with a screen to catch the ball at the top of the key. Here, two important things happened: One, Coach Mack set a quick play to run after having the team roll the ball up the court. This assured the two for one and gave Xavier the ball last. Two, Sean O’Mara rode his man, Markannen, up the lane as Lauri sought to offer help on Bluiett.
Xavier Game Winner - Corner Rip High Low Counter: pic.twitter.com/9yg4r3My6P— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 24, 2017
As soon as Tre caught the ball, Sean dropped and sealed. This has been an incredible tournament for Sean, and he may have delivered his signature moment last night. With Markannen on his back, he rolled to the hoop and finished through the collapsing defenders. The pass from Trevon caught his man with his hands low, waiting for a dribble into a shot. It was a beautiful play call executed perfectly. On Arizona’s last two possessions, Coach Mack showed two different defenses and it was O’Mara and Bernard closing the game out with rebounds. With Arizona heavily favored and carrying the allegedly superior talent, Coach Mack gave his team the plan they needed to win to pull the upset. Never rattled, the Musketeers went out there and did it.