Arizona coach Sean Miller is taking on his former employer in the Sweet 16, which might be a big storyline … if it hadn’t already happened two years ago.
The Wildcats, seeded second in the West, have a Thursday date against No. 11 Xavier, the only double-digit seed left in the NCAA Tournament. The game is scheduled to tip off at about 10:09 p.m. ET after the Gonzaga-West Virginia game in San Jose, Calif.
Arizona and Xavier met in the 2015 Sweet 16, with the Wildcats winning 68-60 in a hard-fought game in Los Angeles.
There is not much to take from that, as only two current Arizona players — point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and center Dusan Ristic — appeared in that game for a total of nine minutes. Musketeers star guard Trevon Bluiett, then a freshman, scored two points on 1-of-6 shooting.
This time around, the Wildcats (32-4) have superior size and two big-time scorers in sophomore guard Allonzo Trier and freshman 7-foot forward Lauri Markkanen.
Xavier (22-13) has Bluiett, who is averaging 17.7 points per game, and a resiliency that led to opening-weekend upsets of No. 6 Maryland and No. 3 Florida State.
Many counted out the Musketeers after guard Edmond Sumner sustained a season-ending knee injury in late January. That came on the heels of guard Myles Davis leaving the team after a brief return from a 15-game, season-opening suspension.
Sumner averaged 15.0 points this season. Davis, who appeared in three games in January, averaged 10.8 points and 4.1 assists per game last season.
“I told them out in the real world, life is going to hand you lemons, and you can pout about it and figure out how to make lemonade,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said of his message to his players.
“Our guys, despite all the adversity they’ve been hit with and the social media that tells them how bad they are and how poor they are, they stayed with it, and they believed in themselves and our coaching staff. It’s a credit to them, and I’m just really proud of them.”
Miller, who was the head coach at Xavier for five seasons before joining Arizona in 2009, often cites his team’s own resiliency as a key to this season’s success.
The Wildcats lost redshirt freshman forward Ray Smith in the preseason to a career-ending third torn ACL, was without Trier for 19 games (suspension), missed Jackson-Cartwright for a month (ankle) and had other assorted injuries.
The team’s only senior — guard Kadeem Allen — has been the leader. And as Arizona’s top defender, Allen likely will be tasked with stopping Bluiett.
“He’s as hard a playing guy as I’ve seen,” Miller said. “And he won’t let his team lose to some degree.”
Xavier effectively played some zone against Florida State, which has been most opponents’ strategy against Arizona.
Arizona does have answers. Trier is averaging 17.1 points, scoring 14 in the second half of a second-round win over Saint Mary’s. Markkanen, averaging 15.8 points, has 36 points on 11-of-18 shooting from the field in two tournament games.
Markkanen is shooting 43.3 percent from 3-point range (68 of 157) but has taken his game more to the paint offensively and defensively late in the season.
“I don’t know if there’s a freshman that’s playing in the NCAA Tournament that’s had a bigger impact on his team than Lauri has had on our team,” Miller said. “And as good of a basketball player is, he’s an even better kid.”