Arizona had everything set up for a run to the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona. The Wildcats had the opportunity to play for a National Championship in their backyard, but unfortunately the Xavier Musketeers had other plans.
The side of the bracket that the number two seeded team couldn’t have been more easy for them. With Florida State, Maryland, and West Virginia all out of the mix in the West it seemed like a golden road to the Final Four for Arizona.
The tournament has the nickname March Madness for a reason.
Thursday night in San Jose, California, the game had the normal feel of a two-seed going against an 11 seed. I doubt there were a lot of Wildcat fans who were sweating bullets over this match-up. I would venture to say that many Arizona fans were already looking forward to the next game against Gonzaga.
In all honesty, I was already starting to think about a possible Arizona-Gonzaga regional final game. So much for thinking ahead, right?
Arizona had the advantage inside with Lauri Markanen and Dusan Ristic who both hover around 7’0. The Cats used that big inside presence to jump out to a quick lead in the game and it seemed like that was going to be the theme to the game. Xavier seemed in over their head in the early going.
That’s why you play the entire 40-minute game. Coach Mack of Xavier found a way to confuse the young Arizona squad. He used different types of zone looks when the Musketeers were on defense.
After the game had settled down into what it became, Arizona wasn’t getting the looks it wanted, looked unsure on how to attack the zone, and for most of the game looked utterly disjointed. The Cats got away from what it had as the advantage. Their height.
Time after time the Wildcats settled for jump shots. Even Lauri Markanen was hoisting shots up from the perimeter. Dusan Ristic was the only Arizona Wildcat who tried anything from the paint. For Arizona fans, it was becoming alarming.
The Wildcats went into the half up 37-35, but certainly were not feeling confident. Head coach Sean Miller was clearly not pleased with his team’s effort going into the half.
“We played pretty bad.” Miller said.
The Arizona fans were waiting for a run from their team. It never came.
Xavier was led by guard Trevon Bluiett who had 25 points in the game. However, the Musketeers were also led by their tough zone defense. Xavier made it difficult for Arizona to find any real confidence on the offensive end of the floor.
Even as the Wildcats got up by eight with 1:53 left in regulation. The feeling I had was that Xavier was going to make one last push at Arizona.
The Musketeers did just that.
Xavier made a 7-0 run and tied the game at 71-71 with under a minute to go.
The best that the Wildcats could do was to get Dusan Ristic a heavily contested shot on the right block.
No offense to Ristic, but there are better players than him on the floor. Lauri Markanen didn’t score for the last 11 minutes of the game.
How the heck does that happen? A 7’0” with his kind of game, doesn’t shoot for 11 minutes?
I like Sean Miller, he gets a little more blame than he should for the kind of success he’s had, but for this game, the blame does fall to him.
He even admitted as much after the ballgame.
“You know, our team never really established great confidence against the zone… and that’s on me.” Miller stated after the game.
It is, but let’s not leave the players totally separate from the blame.
Players, make plays. In this case, the immensely talented Wildcat players couldn’t must anything for the last few minutes of the game. That’s on them. Get to the rim, draw fouls, extend the game. Do something to get points on the board. Wildcat players could do none of that.
In the end, Xavier was the better team. The Musketeers played tougher, made plays when they needed to and never gave up on themselves.
The Wildcats undoubtedly will have another five-star group of players coming in, but there should be a little soul searching going on in Tucson this offseason.