A Hot Start Will Be Key for Xavier as Chris Mack and Sean Miller Meet Again
By: Craig James
Well, well, well we meet again…
The Xavier Musketeers will see a familiar face on the opposing sidelines tonight as they go up against former coach Sean Miller and his Arizona Wildcats. XU fans have some great memories from those Sean Miller led Musketeer teams as he took them to an Elite 8 appearance in ’08 and a Sweet 16 in ’09 before heading out west to coach Arizona.
Growing up as a Xavier fan, like many kids that are Xavier fans, I attended Xavier Basketball camp in the summers. The years of attending those camps when Sean Miller was the coach were the best. He would do amazing dribbling tricks that campers had to match to win cool prizes and Sean Miller was just an awesome guy, but some Xavier fans still have a sour taste in their mouth when it comes to Sean Miller. When coaches depart from a program, the breakup isn’t always easy. Especially when coaches say they aren’t leaving for another program. Miller said he wasn’t leaving Xavier, and not even twenty four hours later Miller had his bags packed for Arizona.
At least he didn’t walk out of the team banquet like Brian Kelly did when he left UC to coach Notre Dame (sorry to kick UC fans when they’re down, but this is the only example I could think of #SorryNotSorry).
Xavier fans can look back on the Sean Miller era with fond memories (especially that ’08 team, which was an amazing team and amazing run) but at the end of the day Sean Miller left Xavier in the dust. Can’t really blame him though, because at the time Xavier was still considered a mid-major program and they played the Atlantic 10. In a way, seeing Miller in the Sweet 16 again is kind of like seeing an ex at the bar.
It’s kind of awkward, you’re not really sure if you should say ‘hi’ to each other or not. You’re thinking about all the good and bad times you used to have together, you might exchange a few glances each other’s way. By the end of the night, somebody usually ends up crying and running out of the bar, which was Xavier in 2015 after they were eliminated by Miller and the Wildcats.
Arizona enters this game with a 32-4 record. Damn impressive. Their only losses coming against Butler (hey, Xavier beat Butler so that’s good news right?!), Gonzaga, Oregon and UCLA. The Wildcats finished first in the Pac 12 regular season and won their conference tournament. They boast a strong resume coming into this Sweet 16 matchup. While Florida State was a good team, they’re no Arizona and this will be Xavier’s toughest matchup of the year. The Wildcats tout a star freshman in their starting lineup, a defensive player of the year and have a senior guard in Kadeem Allen leading the way.
Arizona has a pair of star freshman in Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins (it’s been announced that he will play in Sweet 16 game). Markkanen hails from Finland, stands 7’0 tall and the kid can flat out do it all. Xavier will have its hands full with him come Thursday night.
Markkanen, as a freshman, is averaging 15.8 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Florida State had tremendous size and Xavier was able to manhandle that by packing the zone in tight. The thing was Florida State can’t shoot. Arizona can, they’re shooting 40% from behind the arc this season.
Something to watch in this game is the pressure Kadeem Allen will put on Xavier’s freshman guard Quentin Goodin. While Goodin has performed very well for being thrown into the fire after Edmond Sumner went down with an ACL injury, he has had turnover problems at times. Allen is an All-Pac 12 Defensive Team Player. If Goodin is able to keep the turnovers at a minimum, the Musketeers just may have a shot.
Sean O’Mara and Kaiser Gates have come up huge in Xavier’s first two games of the tournament. O’Mara is averaging 14.5 ppg and 6 rebounds this tournament, well above his regular season average. Gates is averaging 12.5 ppg, also well above his season average. Xavier will need contributions like this from Gates and O’Mara if they want to continue on.
Arizona has started slow in each of their first two games in the tournament. They eventually destroyed North Dakota, but Saint Mary’s fought Arizona till the end. Arizona defeated Saint Mary’s 69-60. If they continue their trend of slow starts, Xavier could take advantage of that, which means Trevon Bluiett needs to score in the first half. Lately Bluiett has scored the majority of his points in the second half, that’s not going to fly against a team like Arizona. The Musketeers need to get him going from the opening tip, especially if Arizona has another slow start.
A couple other items I’m looking forward to for this game: will Sean Miller sweat through his shirt again?
I’m also looking forward to watching this game at a bar where it’s hard to hear the sound of the TV because Chris Webber is calling the game and he is an absolutely atrocious color analyst.
Can Xavier continue this magical March run? They will need a total team performance like they had against Florida State to do so. Gates and O’Mara need to have similar contributions as they did in the first two games. Bluiett will need to continue his hot hand. Xavier’s zone defense will need to be clicking on all cylinders like it has been this tournament. If the zone is not working, they might need to sub Bill Murray in a la Space Jam style to help save the day.
We all know Bill is a lockdown defender. Arizona has four guys that score in double figures, so it’s not like they can just key in on Markkanen or Trier because they have other guys they can go to.
It would be awesome to knock Sean Miller out of the big dance, especially since many people think they will win it all. No matter what happens Thursday night, Xavier fans should be proud of this team, Chris Mack and the entire Xavier program. Nobody expected them to still be dancing, but hey here they are.
All that being said… in the words of DMX “X gon’ give it to ya”.
Prediction: Musketeers 81 Wildcats 77
ps – bonus art…will the student become the teacher? Only time will tell.