When the No. 6 Xavier Musketeers take on the No. 2 Arizona Wildcats at the Staples Center tomorrow night, a lot more than an Elite Eight berth will be on the line. Apart from this being a highly important game for both teams, it will pit a former student against his teacher.
You see, before he was the head coach at Arizona, Sean Miller manned the sidelines at Xavier for five seasons, bringing the Musketeers to an Elite Eight in 2008 and a Sweet Sixteen the following year. After his departure, longtime assistant Chris Mack was named his successor and has done a fine job taking over.
This factor instantly makes the game ten times more interesting. How well does Mack know his predecessor’ style? Can Miller anticipate his former assistant’s battle plans and control the game from the get-go?
Most important of all, however, can Xavier keep up with Arizona’s superior talent and play hard enough to pull off what would be a stunning upset?
Let’s dig a little deeper and find out!
Regular Season Profile
On the whole, Xavier’s regular season was average. The team did not finish in the Top 25, and its regular season record was 19-12 (9-9 Big East), putting itself on the low end of the Big East’s middle of the pack.
But that didn’t keep the Musketeers from being one of the hungriest teams in college basketball. Regardless of opponent, they went out and played their hardest and refused to show any signs of being intimidated. In their twelve losses, the average margin of defeat was only about 7.6 points, and a fourth of said losses were in overtime. That alone proves how scrappy this squad is.
On top of that, despite the modest record, Xavier managed to pull off some key signature wins, both in the regular season and in the conference tournament. Not only did they complete a season sweep of the Georgetown Hoyas, but defeats of Butler in the regular season and Big East Tournament helped propel them to a tournament berth. They also beat Georgetown for a third time in the Big East Tournament.
The team’s signature scrappy style also helped them finish 43rd in the country in scoring, ninth in assists, and 29th in field goal percentage. That said, on the back of a strong finish to the season, a trip to the Big East final and what’s been a great tournament thus far, Xavier definitely has what it takes to put the screws to Arizona. It’s just a matter of execution.
Head Coach Spotlight: Chris Mack
When it comes to Xavier basketball, Chris Mack is simply a go-to guy. Not only was he an assistant coach for the school’s basketball team (1999-2001, 2004-2009) before taking over as head coach, but he also played for the Musketeers from 1990-1993.
Since taking over for Miller six years ago, Mack has done an excellent job keeping the team a regular tournament contender, both during the Atlantic 10 years and during the transition to the much tougher Big East. Over the course of his time as head coach, Mack owns a career record of 134-70, not bad at all.
In terms of Mack’s coaching style, there is only one way to describe it: communication. The point guard is the alpha dog on the court and has two go-to guys, one the big man in the paint and the other a guard or forward who can score consistently. On the defensive side, it’s all about good old-fashioned pesky on-ball D, and this is where Mack has a key advantage.
His opposing coach is someone he worked with for years, so he should know his approach like a book! Moreover, Xavier’s scrappy nature could prove to give Arizona’s run-and-gun style a run for its money, particularly since the Wildcats needed an entire half of basketball to figure out how to beat the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Round of 32.
So long as Mack preaches patience and doesn’t let his players get scared off by Arizona’s superior size and talent (at least it is on paper), then Xavier can play Cinderella and punch a ticket to the Elite Eight!
Team Leader: Dee Davis
The point guard is king in the Musketeers’ offense, and senior Dee Davis has played that role remarkably well. Not exactly a strong scorer, given his size at 6’0″, 161 pounds, Davis has instead focused solely on being a pass-first floor general and only scoring when absolutely necessary.
Davis only posted 8.9 points on a meager 40 percent shooting his senior season, but also posted a team best six assists and 1.3 steals per game. He is the epitome of a team player, putting the win before his own stats and only focusing on the task at hand.
But that hasn’t stopped Davis from turning on the afterburners in the scoring department. Over his last five games, he is averaging 12.4 points and shooting an excellent 52 percent from the field. He has shown great slashing ability and willingness to pick up the slack in the scoring department, which will be vitally important against a sizable Arizona squad that can also run.
So long as Davis keeps the troops’ eyes forward, Xavier can easily put the Wildcats on their heels.
X-Factor: Matt Stainbrook
As I have said many times before, Arizona is a team that is chock full of size, In fact, the average height amongst the Wildcats’ starting five is 6’7″, with the overall athleticism of LeBron James factored in just for good measure. That’s where 6’10”, 263 pound Xavier senior center Matt Stainbrook comes in.
Unlike Wildcats center Kaleb Tarczewski, Stainbrook is more than just a big body to keep in the paint and feed as necessary. Though not the fastest by any means, he works the low post incredibly well and handles double-teams with ease.
Stainbrook also posted 12.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game his senior season, not to mention shot a great 62 percent from the field. Over his last five games, he is averaging 13.2 points, 7.4 boards and shooting 62 percent from the floor.
That said, given that Arizona plays a fast-paced game and has great size in the form of the aforementioned Tarczewski and sophomore Rondae Holllis-Jefferson, a great game from Stainbrook is absolutely critical to Xavier’s upset hopes. Good scoring outputs from guys like Trevon Bluiett, Jalen Reynolds or Myles Davis are also important, but all three are too streaky to label as the x-factor of the game.
This leaves Stainbrook as the key to the Musketeers’ Elite Eight dreams, and the team is going to have a rough time playing catch-up if Arizona manages to take him out of the game.
Well, we’ve dug through the team top to bottom and now the question presents itself: can Xavier knock off Arizona?
Given the team’s tendency to keep games close, the answer is yes. But it’s going to be VERY hard.
As of now, the Musketeers are 10 1/2 point underdogs going into tomorrow night’s game. I’m going to chalk this up not only to the Wildcats being a better overall team, but also the fact that the game will be played in Pac-12 country at Los Angeles’s Staples Center. That’s about an eight hour drive from Arizona’s campus in Tuscon, so there will almost certainly be fans that make the trip to watch the game. The same activity would be a bit tough for fans of Xavier, whose campus is in Cincinnati, Ohio.
But as was mentioned before, the Musketeers are a scrappy bunch with a never say die attitude. Arizona may have the better team, but Xavier wants an Elite Eight spot more based on recent play alone.
Despite the spread, this game could turn out to be a close one, and not one to be missed!
*Section Photo credit to Elsa, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Chris O’Meara, Associated Press