The Past Comes Back as Arizona and Xavier Meet Again in Sweet 16

San Jose, Calif. – Before departing to become the head coach at Arizona, Sean Miller spent eight years at Xavier as Thad Matta’s top assistant for three years before taking the helm for five years. The Wildcats last played the Musketeers in the Sweet 16 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Now, the two will face off again in which Miller feels the storyline should be on the players vying for a spot in the Elite Eight.

“How this has happened twice in the last three years or two years is amazing to me,” said Coach Miller. “If it happened in the NCAA Tournament, I think that’s improbable enough, but to be here in the Sweet 16 round two of the last three years against these guys, you know, I wish it was different, but it isn’t.”

Arizona has all the incentive to come to make the Final Four knowing a sizable home court advantage is at hand in Phoenix. But the focus is on the present as Xavier has been making noise as a No. 11 seed. Maryland and Florida State had been the favorites to make the Sweet 16 in the West Region. Xavier upset both teams in the opening rounds to make the trek to San Jose.

The Wildcat’s almost missed the cut after getting a scare from the Gaels of St. Mary’s in the second round. Arizona managed to erase a 10-point deficit to defeat St. Mary’s by nine points in Salt Lake City, Utah. Though a challenging game, the Wildcats must come out of the gates better and not fall behind.

A big part of Arizona making the Sweet 16 has been the play of forward Lauri Markkanen. Coach Miller said not only has Markkanen been great as a 3-point shooter, but his ability to embrace all aspects of the game has made him versatile.

“He’s much more well versed on offense and defense around the rim. He’s become a very good defensive player. Even in the last month he has really grown because of the variety of players that he has defended. And we’ve asked him to score more around the basket, and he’s responded.”

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Markannen’s teammate, Allonzo Trier, has been grateful for his impact on the team.

“He has added things that have brought new elements to our team and have helped us. We’re very grateful to have somebody like him on our basketball team,” said Trier.

As for Trier, his contributions may not have occurred after missing the first 19 games of the season. Trier reportedly had taken a performance enhancing drug which put his eligibility in jeopardy. When the dust settled, he was cleared and could resume playing for Arizona. He said his coaches and teammates knew the truth and thankful for the support he received.

“As a team, coaching staff, everybody was behind him the whole thing,” said Kadeem Allen. “The truth came out, and he’s playing now. We’re happy to have him back now, and we’re just happy to make a run in the tournament.”

“There was no guarantee that he was going to come back in 12, 20, ever,” said Coach Miller. “But his love of the game transcended anything else. He worked hard every day in practice. The fact that he was allowed to practice was both good for him and his psyche, but also our team.”

Xavier will be no cakewalk for Arizona as the team is poised to continue their Cinderella run in the tournament. Junior Trevon Bluiett leads the team with 18.5 points per game, second in the Big East. In neutral site games this season, Xavier is 7-1. As for Coach Chris Mack, he does not think of his team as the Cinderella.

“You’re only an underdog if you feel like you’re the lesser team,” he said. “I don’t feel that way about our guys and I don’t think they feel that way about each other.”

Injuries came at a bad time for Xavier as leading scorers Bluiett and Edmond Summer went down. The team lost six-straight but were still in consideration of making the NCAA Tournament. With the tough stretch endured by the team, Coach Mack chose to have the bad omens be put aside. Players were given a calendar to talk about what transcribed over the month of February.

“We decided to have our players sort of burn those calendars. And then we bought an urn. We put the ashes in there as a symbolic gesture that February is gone. Let’s concentrate and move forward in March.”

Now at full strength, minus Summer who sustained a season-ending knee injury, Xavier can compete against any opponent. The Musketeers are a well-rebounded team at both ends of the court. With the big men, Arizona has on the floor, Xavier must battle throughout the contest to pull off another upset.

“We must come out at the beginning of the game just trying to be tough,” said Tyrique Jones. “And just watch the film, lock into details and see what their big players do best, learn how to defend them. And from our toughness and our ability to score the ball inside, we go from there.”

Coach Miller may have ties to Xavier, but his purpose is getting Arizona into the Elite Eight as Coach Mack will look to do the same.

“We’re playing against one of the hottest teams that are remaining in the tournament,” said Coach Miller. “And if last weekend is any indication of where they’re at, it’s scary for anybody that’s going to play against them.”

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