For the second time in three years, Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller will go up against his former team in an NCAA Tournament regional semifinal.
On Thursday, the No. 2 seed Wildcats (32-4, 16-2 Pac-12) will take on No. 11 seed Xavier (23-13, 9-9 Big East) in San Jose, California for the right to advance to the Elite Eight and face the winner of Gonzaga and West Virginia for a Final Four bid.
Arizona is playing its best basketball of the season, but the same can be said of Xavier, which has overcome a season-ending injury to point guard Edmond Sumner and steamrolled Maryland and Florida State in the first two rounds of the tournament.
The Wildcats beat Xavier 68-60 two years ago to advance to the Elite Eight. Will history repeat itself? Here are three questions and a prediction for their Sweet 16 rematch, which will begin at approximately 7:10 p.m. Arizona time Thursday.
1. Can the Wildcats break through Xavier's zone?
Until recently, Arizona has had trouble breaking through opponents' zone defenses. Enter Xavier, which implements a 1-3-1 zone designed to force opponents to settle for outside shots or make it difficult to pass to players near the basket.
The video below is from last season, but it's a good illustration of how infuriating the 1-3-1 can be when executed properly.
Arizona has had better luck in breaking down zones recently, especially in wins over UCLA and Oregon en route to the Pac-12 Tournament championship. But can the Wildcats' size and outside shooting help them overcome the 1-3-1?
2. Can Kadeem Allen contain Trevon Bluiett?
Xavier is still alive in this tournament because of the ridiculous play of leading scorer Trevon Bluiett. The 6-foot-6 junior guard's 18.5 points per game was second-best in the Big East during the regular season, but Bluiett has taken his game to another level in the Big Dance, as he scored a total of 50 points and connected on 8 of 15 3-point attempts in Xavier's wins over Maryland and Florida State.
Kadeem Allen will likely be given the unenviable task of guarding Bluiett on Thursday, but the Wildcats' only senior could be up for the challenge. Allen was named to the Pac-12's All-Defensive Team and is rightly regarded as one of the nation's best all-around defenders.
Bluiett will probably lead the Musketeers in scoring Thursday, but if Allen can limit Bluiett's productivity -- something in the 15-17-point range rather than 25-plus -- the Wildcats have an excellent chance of advancing.
3. Who will get hot from outside?
The Wildcats are one of the nation's best in defending the 3-point shot, but Sean Miller knows from experience (Wisconsin two years ago, Oregon this season) that there's not much that can be done if a team decides to shoot lights out from beyond the arc. Enter Xavier, which shot a modest 34.9 percent from 3-point range during the regular season but is 50 percent (20 of 40) from distance in its two tournament games, including an absurd 11 of 17 against Florida State.
On the flip side, the Wildcats don't attempt many 3-pointers, but their 39.6 percentage from beyond the arc is second-best in the Pac-12 behind UCLA. At times, all five players on the court -- including 7-footer Lauri Markkanen -- are capable of draining 3s, which helps Arizona spread the floor like few college basketball teams can.
The 3-point shot might not decide Thursday's matchup, but another double-digit night from downtown could push Xavier past the Wildcats. Will the Musketeers cool off -- and if they don't, will Arizona be able to counter?
Xavier is a classic case of a good team playing above its talent level at the right time. After losing Sumner, and then losing six straight games in February, the Musketeers set fire to their past (literally) and have since won five of their last six.
Don't let the "11" next to Xavier's name fool you: Bluiett's play, combined with the Musketeers' rebounding ability and frustrating defensive scheme, is enough to deny Arizona its fourth Elite Eight trip in seven years.
The difference in this game, however, could be Allen, whose defense has frustrated some of the nation's best shooters this season. If the senior can contain Bluiett, Xavier will be hard-pressed to keep up with Markkanen, leading scorer Allonzo Trier and the Wildcats.
Anything can happen on Thursday night, but Arizona is a deeper, more talented team that's highly adaptable and can beat you in more ways than one. Those factors should be enough to move the Wildcats one step closer to Glendale.
Arizona 72, Xavier 67