No. 11-seed Xavier (23-13, 9-9 Big East) capped off an impressive first weekend of upsets to reach the Sweet 16. The Musketeers downed Maryland and Florida State and will try to continue sending shockwaves throughout the West region, when they square off against second-seeded Arizona (32-4, 16-2 Pac-12) on Thursday night.
Xavier is trying to reach the Elite Eight for just the third time in program history. It has found itself in a familiar scenario, as the last time the X-Men reached the Sweet 16 in 2015, it was bounced out by Arizona.
How to watch, listen, and stream
Game Time: Thursday, March 23, 2017, at 10:09 p.m. ET
TV: TBS (Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, Lewis Johnson)
Live Stream: March Madness Live
Arizona is a 7.5-point favorite, per Oddsshark.com.
This is the second meeting between both schools. The first time they met was—interestingly--in the Sweet 16 two years ago, when No. 2-seed Arizona beat sixth-seeded Xavier, 68-60.
How They Got Here
Xavier: The Musketeers upset second-seeded Butler in the Big East Tournament but found themselves on the wrong end of a thrilling shocker, as a last-second Creighton three bounced them out just before the finals. Since then, Xavier continued its trend of upsets into the NCAA Tournament, beating No. 6-seed Maryland in the opening round, 76-65. The X-Men proved that first win was no fluke, upsetting third-seeded Florida State in a 91-66 lopsided fashion to reach sixth Sweet 16 in 10 years.
Arizona: After claiming its second Pac-12 tournament championship in three years, the Wildcats entered the Big Dance as the two-seed in the West region. They started off NCAA Tournament play on a high note, hanging 100 points on No. 15-seed North Dakota. The secure, wire-to-wire finish was a far cry from the Second Round game against seventh-seeded St. Mary’s, who put Arizona on upset alert. The Gaels going into the break and kept it close to start the second half, until the Wildcats took the lead and pulled away to win 69-60.
What to Watch For
Yes, Arizona sophomore Allonzo Trier is great too. For the Wildcats, to get him back in the second half of the season after he served a PED-related suspension to start the year--was big. His return made a great Wildcat squad even better. Over the last 17 games, Trier is averaging 17.1 points and 5.1 rebounds.
However, it’s the Wildcat freshmen that have been driving the team’s success this season. The trio of first-year players Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins, and Lauri Markkanen have created this strong cornerstone for the ‘Cats.
According to ESPN100, Simmons and Alkins were both top 25 prospects coming out of high school. Simmons enjoyed a solid first half of the season, until he slowly transitioned out of the starting five into a bench role. He started in place of Trier and gained big minutes in light of injuries to other players. During this stretch, he played well and averaged 12.1 points per game, but Trier’s return and head coach Sean Miller’s decision to trim his rotation for March has resulted in a reduced role.
As for Alkins, he’s a solid scoring guard. Sure, Alkins might have only had six points in the win against St. Mary’s, but his toughness surrounding his decision to re-insert himself into the game after suffering a dislocated and fractured finger garnered a lot of buzz. This season, he’s averaged 11.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.
Then there’s Markkanen, who unlike the two previously mentioned players, may have entered the program as the quietest talent. The Arizona community sure loves him and was already wrapped in the hype surrounding his arrival from Finland, but he wasn’t seen on many high school recruiting websites' rankings—despite his five-star profile. Outside of Arizona, he only had offers from Utah and North Carolina. Now, it seems like everybody knows of him. The seven-foot forward fits the typical profile of a European stretch big. He can score inside or pull up from deep, and he’s a good rebounder. Markkanen is averaging 15.8 points and 7.2 boards, while shooting 46.4 percent on the floor and a respectable 40.3 percent from deep.
Many argue that if teams want to be successful in March, they need a player that is able to rise to the forefront and take over the game in crucial moments or to lead the team. Through the first couple of NCAA Tournament games, Trevon Bluiett has been that type of player for Xavier.
It wasn’t exactly the role he expected to have, as he and Edmond Sumner provided a tough one-two punch for opponents throughout the season. However, since the Sumner injury, Bluiett shouldered a greater workload and has responded well, especially in the Tournament.
Of all the players on Sweet 16 teams, he is just behind South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell in scoring. Over the last two games, he’s averaged 25.0 points per game, shooting a combined 15-of-29 (51.7 percent) overall and 8-of-15 from beyond the arc.
He’s driven the Musketeers in March, and his teammates are following his lead. Most notably, Kaiser Gates and Sean O’Mara have played effectively off the bench. These are a pair of players that have averaged just six points per game this season, but have dialed up the intensity in the postseason. Both players are coming off of back-to-back double digit scoring performances.
Still Living by the Three?
Throughout the regular season, the three-ball wasn’t really a big part of Xavier’s offensive scheme. Over 50 percent of its points came from inside the arc, while just under 29 percent were from long range—falling well below average in comparison to the rest of Division I schools.
As a team, the Musketeers shot just 34.0 percent from three-point range in the regular season, good for 226th in the country.
Since the NCAA Tournament tipped off, they found their groove from deep and are no longer shying away from taking threes. After West Virginia, Xavier boasts the second-highest 3-point shooting percentage of all the teams in the NCAA Tournament, converting an impressive 50 percent of shots.
The perimeter shot has been an instrumental part in this Sweet 16 run, and it will be important if Xavier plans on moving forward. The Musketeers will need to continue their success from deep against the Wildcats.
So far, Bluiett (8-of-15) and Gates (7-of-11) have impressed in both games from beyond the arc. J.P. Macura (2-of-7), who is known for his shooting ability, seems to still be finding his stroke.
It won’t be easy, as Arizona is one of the better defensive teams around. According to KenPom, the Wildcats are ranked 24th in defensive efficiency and have held opponents to shooting just 30.9 percent from long range (13th in Division I).