Examining the Sweetness: Arizona v. Xavier

Sean Miller’s first major NCAA tournament break (an 11-seed in the Sweet Sixteen is a treasure) naturally must be against his ex-girlfriend (wife?). Because if we’re to take Chris Mack at his word, there’s a few things at play here: 1) He and Miller have already agreed that Xavier will win this one, 2) That it really stinks to battle your mentor. We have to imagine the former is a joke and the latter a sharp reality and the converse – playing your mentee – is no more fun.

Alas, let’s learn a little bit more about playing this particular 11 seed tomorrow:

Sweet Sixteen – #11 Xavier

Let’s get this out there – Xavier plays 20% of its defensive possessions in zone. GASP! Their effectiveness in this set is minimal, ranking 183rd on a points per possession basis. That’s right about average. As you might assume, the Musketeers are likely to zone a lot on Thursday. Arizona, meantime, touts an offense that’s both peaking and capable of scoring against the zone. Your perception is not a reality. Per Synergy Sports, Arizona scores 0.985 points per possession against zone (84th nationally) while facing the 19th most zone in the country. Simmer down. Their eFG% is higher against zone (more threes!) while their free throw rate (less penetration) and turnover rates are lower. They take 12.5% of their offense in post-up scenarios against zone (vs. 10.9% overall) and 11.9% cutting (vs. 7.8% overall). (NOTE: cutting, above, is loosely defined as interior passing). Effectively, Arizona is still getting about a quarter of its offense in and towards the basket. A big part of the zone effort is to limit Arizona’s highly effective transition offense (31st most efficient, nationally).

And just as we’ve lamented parts of Arizona’s fluid 2017 roster situation, Xavier has had a similar-but-different go of it. They dismissed Myles Davis on 1/20/17 and saw perhaps their best player (and projected 2018 First Rounder), Edmond Sumner, go down to an ACL tear on 1/30/17. Here’s a look at Xavier’s raw efficiency numbers on the season and since that Sumner injury:

Oeff Deff Diff
Since 1/30 1.078 1.077 0.001
Full season 1.096 1.036 0.06

The Musketeers’ efficiency differential since his departure has been almost neutral. Of course these aren’t adjusted numbers, thus they’re not accounting for the fact that Xavier played some really tough teams in there. The top numbers include a six-game losing streak in which each team was an NCAA tournament team (the margins in those games were: 14, 12, 22, 7, 9, 9). Of note: Arizona is an NCAA tournament team.

About that offense. Trevon Bluiett can shoot it. He’s had five games of five-or-more made threes and one game, against Cincinnati’s Top-20 defense, in which he made 9-11 threes. For the season he’s made 37% of those attempts. Meanwhile, the Musketeers overall make just 36% of their threes, collecting just 28% of their offense from beyond the arc (national average is 30%).

Bluiett could also prove something of a mismatch depending on lineups. Should Mack slot him into the PF slot, Arizona could be forced small, in which Keanu Pinder draws the assignment. Conversely, it could be Lauri Markkanen in other Arizona lineups. A matchup in which Bluiett yields much size.. If/when Xavier goes big, they give up significant skill.

It can’t go unmentioned that Xavier is an elite rebounding team. After all, Sean Miller has his finger prints all over this program. They manage to get to the line well, certainly supporting their offensive efficiency as they aren’t a great shooting team.

In summary, this is a game that Arizona should win.

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