The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team rallied to beat Saint Mary’s 69-60 in the NCAA Tournament second round and advance to the Sweet 16 against Xavier, Sean Miller’s old team.
The Wildcats survived the opening week of the NCAA Tournament. That’s all the style points any college basketball team needs this time of year.
Their 69-60 victory over Saint Mary’s wasn’t as entertaining or impressive as their 100-point output in the opening round. But it illuminated Arizona’s poise and balance, a team that doesn’t rattle easily. They shook off a 10-point deficit in the first half, eventually taking over a game that tested their nerve and their patience. And the biggest winner was Finnish center Lauri Markkanen.
Markkanen is a fluid 7-footer who can score inside and out. But against the Gaels, he battled hard in the paint, showing a willingness to play physical and grind on every defensive possession. Over the first two games of the tournament, Markkanen improved his NBA draft status more than any other Wildcats player.
Arizona was blessed with a friendly draw entering the tournament, and now catches something of a break in the Sweet 16. They face Xavier, which upset third-seeded Florida State. It’s also the school that first hired Miller as a head coach, before he left for Tucson.
Dawn Rodgers, who helped bring the Final Four to Glendale, was the athletic director at Xavier at the time.
“Sean was our associate head coach, and Thad Matta was interviewing at Ohio State,” Rodgers said. “We were starting to get reports that he had taken a job but had not called me. So that evening, Sean and I had an impromptu interview for several hours and it became clear that he was the right person to lead the program.
“So the next day, Ohio State named Thad Matta as their head coach and we named Sean Miller as ours. He was a first-time head coach and I was a first-time athletic director. That year was a wild ride, but I learned a lot about him as a person and knew the decision to hire him was one of the best I had ever made.”