The Arizona Wildcats advanced to their 18th Sweet 16 appearance with the 69-60 victory over Saint Mary’s on Saturday night in an NCAA Tournament West Regional second-round game in Salt Lake City.
It is the fifth time in Sean Miller’s eight seasons at Arizona that the Wildcats have gone to the Sweet 16. In three of the four previous times, Arizona advanced to the Elite Eight. The lone loss was Ohio State’s last-second 73-70 win in 2013.
Arizona, the No. 2 seed, advances to play No. 11 seed Xavier — Miller’s former school — on Thursday night in San Jose. No. 1 Gonzaga faces No. 4 West Virginia in the other Sweet 16 game. Times and television stations are yet to be announced.
The following are notes and numbers pertaining to the Arizona Wildcats after their grind-it-out win over the Gaels:
— Arizona’s best interior defender is evolving into Lauri Markkanen, who posted up strong against dominant Saint Mary’s post player Jock Landale. Markkanen had two blocked shots against Landale, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds but had to work hard for those numbers. Markkanen nearly matched Landale with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Markkanen’s two blocked shots gives him seven in the last six games after he achieved only 12 in the previous 29 games.
“Got a little bit more comfortable as the game went on,” Markkanen said of his matchup against Landale. “I just tried to be as physical as I can and don’t let him get the ball. But of course, he can get it sometimes. He’s a good player.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller adds $50,000 bonus as Wildcats beat Saint Mary's to reach NCAA men's Sweet 16. He's at $265,000 in bonuses so far
— Markkanen leads the Wildcats with six double-doubles. His teammates combine for six. Dusan Ristic, as a 7-foot starting center in the Pac-12, has only two. Watching the game it’s obvious that Sean Miller and assistant Joe Pasternack get frustrated when Ristick is not active with his feet. As he has all season, Ristic held his own offensively making 6 of 9 shots from the field.
— Markkanen’s seven defensive rebounds tie for third-most in Arizona’s NCAA tournament history. Aaron Gordon holds the record of 12 against Wisconsin in the 2014 Elite Eight game that went into overtime. It’s interesting to note that Miller-coached players are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 (Kaleb Tarczewski with eight against Harvard in 2013), and are four of the seven tied for third, including Markkanen now.
— Arizona won despite manufacturing only four assists, a season low. The previous low was seven against Gonzaga and Michigan State. Kadeem Allen did not record an assist and Parker Jackson-Cartwright had only one in a combined 58 minutes of playing time. That’s a credit to the stringent man-to-man defense Saint Mary’s plays with constant movement and switches.
The four assists was one shy of tying the dubious Arizona NCAA tournament record of three when the Wildcats beat Ole Miss in a 2001 Sweet 16 game.
— One of the keys was Arizona limiting the 3-point shooting of Saint Mary’s to only 23.8 percent (5 of 21). Entering the game, Arizona ranked No. 21 nationally allowing opponents to shoot only 31.1 percent from beyond the arc.
“North Dakota really prepared us for tonight,” Miller said. “They made ten 3’s. They were a very difficult team to defend. They have a number of players like Saint Mary’s that can shoot the three. I think our players learned a team like that who moves the ball and has such great movement, your margin for error is razor thin.”
Sean Miller on what sparked Allonzo Trier's performance in the 2nd half: pic.twitter.com/ZCF7aH8Wtr
— Remember how woeful Arizona’s free throw shooting was in Las Vegas last week? What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas with that. The Wildcats made crucial free throws in the second half to ward off Saint Mary’s. They made 11 of 13 in the half and 19 of 23 in the game. They made eight straight free throws in the second half until Allonzo Trier made one of two with 57 seconds left and Allen made one of two with 46 seconds remaining. At that point, however, Arizona was up by eight and not in immediate danger.
The most important stat: Arizona outscored Saint Mary’s 19-5 at the free throw line. The Gaels finished 5 of 8 from the stripe.
“Our advantage was driving,” Miller said. “Our advantage, I think eventually was to be able to get the ball inside. And I think getting the ball to the basket, whether it be on drive or post catch, we delivered. We scored. We got fouled.
“And I think that was the big difference. In the first half we weren’t nearly as good in getting the ball on drives and into the post. In the second half we were. These guys were both a big part of that.”
— Xavier’s strength is rebounding. The Musketeers (24-13) entered Saturday’s game against Florida State ranked No. 17 nationally in rebounding margin (6.7 a game). Forward Rashid Gaston leads Xavier with 6.1 rebounds a game and guard Trevon Bluiett is next at 5.7 a game. This will be yet another challenge for Arizona, which must limit the Musketeers’ second chances. Arizona out-rebounded Saint Mary’s and kept the second-chance points to a minimum, with the Gaels winning that category barely at 11-9.
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.