SAN JOSE-- The Arizona Wildcats take on the Xavier Musketeers in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Thursday. Our writers put in their keys to the game as well as some sights and sounds from today's coverage in San Jose.
Saul Bookman's keys:
You don’t have to be tall to play big but having length and a size advantage doesn’t hurt. Such is the case for the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats as they take on an undersized No. 11 Xavier Musketeer team tomorrow in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in San Jose.
The Musketeers are a team that likes to take advantage of you physically, averaging just a shade under 12 offensive rebounds per game and just over 25 rebounds per game defensively. Compare that to the Wildcats that are at just over 10 and 26 and you realize it will be no easy feat to keep the Musketeers off the boards. This is all coming with Xavier’s tallest guy standing at 6’9’.
But a lack of size is a lack of size and when you have two seven footers in the lineup it is imperative that you take advantage. Especially when one of those seven footers is Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen comes into Thursday nights matchup as a definite mismatch for Xavier. He is too big for the smaller Musketeers with the finesse and athleticism to hurt them from all over the court. How Xavier defends him, and more specifically, how Markkanen performs could decide either teams fate.
Being in the moment:
There is a lot of pressure on a team once they reach the Sweet 16, even more on Arizona. They know how long it has been since UA has been to the Final Four, they don’t need a reminder. Now it is all about playing like so.
The key to playing well is to play loose, something they didn’t do against Saint Mary’s early on. Members of the team agreed that they played tight, but this week isn’t the week for being scared.
To the teams credit, they appear loose and ready. You can tell they love being on the court with their teammates and genuinely love the game. It was smiles all around as they took in shoot around, hopefully those smiles stick around past Saturday.
Sights and sounds: Savage Life
A news reporter showed Rawle Alkins a 'Savage Life' T-shirt. Savage life is the motto that he came up with as a ode to a way of life. It is amazing what a tricky catchphrase can do. That phrase has caught on like wildfire and it won't stop until the Wildcats do. It is interesting to see, especially because Alkins is the creator but can't benefit in any way. Being a student-athlete isn't fair sometimes.
Justin Spears' keys:
The Dus is loose:
One player that fell off the map in the round of 32 was Arizona center Dusan Ristić and it was a given that Jock Landale was going to give him a run for his money, but he didn’t rise to the challenge.
Arizona is a strange team. When Ristić is fed the ball early especially on the first few possessions and he scores, then the Wildcats are usually in good hands. Although Ristić finished with 13 points and shot 67 percent from the field against the Gaels, don’t let that take you away from when Landale started the game shooting 5-for-5 with Ristić guarding him.
Xavier is undersized and its best frontcourt weapon is a 6-foot-9 freshman in Tyrique Jones so he won’t be a lengthy body like Landale, but Jones is still a bruiser in the paint. If Ristić gets any traction on defense and actively scores in the low post, expect Arizona to win by a large margin.
Don't take the foot off the gas pedal:
Remember when Arizona was favored by 5 points against Saint Mary’s and was down by 10 in the first half? The Gaels only lost to four teams this season and the mindset going into the game was the Wildcats’ athleticism alone could beat SMC, which is unfair if you ask me.
Xavier isn’t a walk in the park either and on paper, the Musketeers don’t matchup with Arizona in terms of size, but don’t sleep on them. The Elite Eight game, whether it’s a rematch with Gonzaga or a date with West Virginia’s infamous press defense is on Saturday. Leave the Saturday discussion for Friday and pre-game. Xavier is a double-digit seed—yes, the Musketeers come from a non-power five conference—yes and they certainly don’t have the talent that Arizona has—yes, but don’t ever underestimate the heart of a David against a Goliath.
Arizona shouldn’t get complacent for one second tomorrow because of the lower seed, just ask Duke.
Sights and sounds: Tenacious X and the jar of the destiny
In the Xavier locker room, a jar of ashes sits near the door as a symbol of the team’s season. In February when team lost give consecutive games and were on the brink of potentially not making it to the NCAA Tournament, they took the calendar from head coach Chris Mack’s office, burned it and kept the ashes in a clear jar.
The jar that symbolizes Xavier's season. pic.twitter.com/baWxgkxi5C— Justin Spears (@JustinESports) March 22, 2017
“We had to figure out a way to be able to turn the page and know as low as we feel as bad as we feel there's a lot of good things that can happen if we have the right mindset. So we decided to have our players sort of burn those calendars,” Mack said. “We did it in the big aluminum trash can in the locker room. We made sure the fire chiefs were out of the building, and then we bought an urn. Our [graduate assistant], Allen Payne, went over to WalMart, tried to buy an urn. The only one that was available had frogs and roses. Didn't think that was very appropriate. So we bought a clear jar, called it an urn. I've never seen one, at least up close and personal so I couldn't tell a difference whether it was an urn or not. Put the ashes in there as a symbolic gesture that February is gone. Let's concentrate and move forward in March.”
Mack also said that it reminds them that the negativity is burned behind them and it’s motivation for Xavier to move forward. Any chance someone takes a handful and throws it in the air like LeBron James’ pre-game ritual? A guy can only hope.
Christopher Deak's key:
Win the battle on the perimeter:
On both ends of the floor this season, one of the Arizona Wildcats’ strengths has been their stellar play on the perimeter. Whether it be Kadeem Allen, Allonzo Trie, or Rawle Alkins, every opponent Arizona has faced has had to game plan for the trio on both ends of the floor.
Most teams can not match their athleticism, much less the size that someone like Alkins’ possesses. The Xavier Musketeers on paper appear ready for the matchup.
While they are undersized down low, their two leading active scorers are guards Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura, standing at 6’6 and 6’5 respectively.
Bluiett leads Xavier at 17.7 points per game and while Allen said he did not know at this point who he will be guarding tomorrow, he had plenty to say about the backcourt duo.
"He's a good player [Bluiett], he makes the team better," Allen said. "Him and J.P. [Macura] both of them shoot the ball very well. Bluiett, he just stands out on the team when he shoots the ball, he's crafty with the ball, he just makes everyone else better."
The Wildcats will likely try and wear down the combo of Bluiett and Macura by rotating their trio of wing defenders and hope the Musketeers wear out by the second half.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller alluded to the fact that the Musketeers like to run three different defenses. Macura is a big factor in their versatility.
“Macura, he just has a knack of being able to deflect the ball and steal it, and he's a nuisance in a really good way,” Miller said. “So we can't let him affect the game of disrupting us, regardless of what zone offense we're in.”
If the Arizona guards can take care of business, it sure puts a lot of pressure on Xavier’s undersized bigs. The Wildcats will find themselves in the Elite Eight if they can shut down Bluiett and Macura.
Sights and Sounds: Lauri Markkanen's first college basketball memory
Lauri Markkanen is one of the biggest stories in this year’s NCAA Tournament. He’s been a big story in Tucson and within the Pac-12 Conference all season, but under the bright lights of March Madness, he hasn’t skipped a beat. Markkanen seems unfazed by the bigger stage.
That could be because, according to the Finnish big man, he didn’t even know what it was just a few years ago.
The tournament isn’t too big in Jyväskylä, Finland, Markkanen’s hometown, but there was a specific time he became aware of the big dance.
"Actually, my first memory of college basketball is I remember John Wall playing," Markkanen said. "I don't remember anything [specific] I just remember him playing."
Wait, Markkanen was just an 11-year old when Wall was at Kentucky, did he really remember him playing or did he remember the dance?
“Oh ya,” that’s all Markkanen could say through his laughs if he remembered the John Wall dance.
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