Following another solid NCAA tournament victory, No. 2-seeded Arizona (33-3; 16-2) clash with No. 6-seeded Xavier (23-13; 9-9) in a Sweet 16, West region matchup set for Thursday night in Los Angeles at Staples Center.
Arizona eased past Ohio State in the third-round to earn a third-straight Sweet 16 berth, using an aggressive defense to contain the Buckeyes, 73-58. After a slow start and a tight first half, Sean Miller’s squad pulled away in the second, using a 16-5 run to subdue Ohio State. They also limited freshman guard D'Angelo Russell, a projected NBA lottery pick, to just nine points.
“I thought we defended with a lot of purpose,” Miller said in a press conference after the game. “We won our way.”
Arizona’s "way" featured out-rebounding the Buckeyes 43-26 and converting 20 of their 24 free-throw attempts. Wildcats star guard T.J. McConnell had one of his best games of 2015, registering 19 points, six assists, six rebounds and five steals. He made eight of his 13 shot attempts (61.5 percent) while creating opportunities for the rest of the Wildcats offense. Guard Gabe York added five three-pointers on his way to 19 points.
Xavier rolled into the Sweet 16 by topping tournament darlings Georgia State and knocking off Ole Miss. The Musketeers spread the ball well, never relying on one particular scorer, while shooting an impressive 47.3 percent from the floor. Xavier ranks 196th in the NCAA (67.3 ppg) in points allowed and will have the tough task of containing an Arizona offense that shoots 48.9 percent from the field.
Xavier head coach Chris Mack was formerly an assistant under Miller, before he left Xavier for Arizona. The two friends should be familiar with one another’s game plans. It would be bittersweet for Mack to lead the Musketeers to an upset win.
"It's hard to play against one of your best friends in the business," Mack said in a press conference. "But it really won't matter to our guys, nor will it matter to Arizona, because those guys don't know me from a bucket of paint."
Mack might rely on senior center Matt Stainbrook against his former boss. Stainbrook has made his chances count in the tournament, scoring 29 total points and shooting 80 percent from the field. Xavier will have to deal with the post prowess of forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (11.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg), and Stainbrook might be their best option. Xavier freshman forward Trevo Bluiett (11.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) will likely have to counter Arizona’s star forward Stanley Johnson. Johnson averages a team-best 14 points, along with 6.6 rebounds. The fluid freshman is capable of dominating his defenders with his athleticism, and could be one of the first five selections in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Xavier enter as the underdog, seeking their first Elite Eight appearance since 2008, while Arizona has the chance to make it back for the second straight year. The Wildcats have only lost one game in over two months, but don't seem to be taking their opponents lightly.
“We've weathered a couple of storms,” Miller said. “I think we've learned in this region, this tournament, a couple things, this week leading to L.A., that we have to make sure we're sharp and ready to go.”
Point Spread: Arizona favored by 11 points
Over/Under: 136 points
Prediction: The Musketeers should not be underestimated. They have beaten too many good teams, and will be prepared to give the Wildcats a serious fight. But the only team in the nation that seems to be playing more effective basketball than Arizona is Kentucky, and it's difficult to envision Xavier escaping with a win.
Predicted Score: Arizona over Xavier, 71-67