The Arizona Wildcats have been to the NCAA Tournament six times under Sean Miller, and in four of those appearances they have at least made it to the Sweet 16.
They will have an opportunity to make it five Saturday when they take on Saint Mary’s in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Arizona (31-4, 16-2 in Pac-12), the two seed in the West Region, got to this point by way of a 100-82 win over North Dakota Thursday night. Saint Mary’s (29-4, 16-2 in WCC), seeded 10th, knocked off VCU 85-77.
“We have to be more ready, especially for the next game,” Arizona center Dusan Ristic said after Thursday’s victory. “Saint Mary’s is a better team.”
Saint Mary’s is, indeed, a different animal than North Dakota, albeit one the Wildcats are somewhat familiar with given that programs have been scrimmage partners in the recent past.
But whereas the Fighting Hawks came into their first-round matchup with the Wildcats as undersized underdogs, the Gaels are expected to give Arizona all it can handle with its size, which helped lead to a plus-9.3 rebounding margin during the season while holding opponents to just 57.1 points per game.
Saint Mary’s is led in scoring by 6-foot-11 junior Jock Landale, who is averaging 16.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Junior forward Calvin Hermanson, who is 6-foot-6, is the only other player averaging double figures, at 13.1, though 6-foot-1 guard Emmeett Naar is close at 9.6.
A deliberate team, offensively Saint Mary’s is solid, averaging 72.4 points per game. But while they are efficient on the offensive side of the floor, shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and turning the ball over just 10.7 times per game, it is their ability on defense that the Cats are mindful of.
“I think we’re going to have to be very patient,” Arizona guard Allonzo Trier said Friday. “We’re going to have to let the game come to us. They’re a very good defensive team, and they’re very much like us as in they play only all-man. They’re very sound, they do a great job of rotating on defense and they’re well coached.”
Whereas Thursday’s tilt with North Dakota was played at a faster pace — a fact Miller pointed to after the win –, Saturday’s promises to be a bit slower. Generally, games like that have not been an issue for the Wildcats, who feature an inside-out game that can be effective in a half-court setting.
Yet, at the same time, grind-it-out affairs are generally close in nature, which may be part of the reason why the Vegas line for this game has hovered around three to four points.
“They’re extremely physical; they’re tough, smart. They don’t beat themselves,” guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright said. “They have an extremely great coach that has been around, it’s not his first go around.
“So they’re going to be really prepared to come out and play hard and give us a run for our money. We’ve got to be a little bit more locked in, beginning of the game to the finish.”
During the season, Saint Mary’s made an average of 8.7 three-point shots per game, connecting at a 40-percent clip. On the flip side, the Wildcats held teams to 31 percent three-point shooting during the season.
“We just have to watch film and be prepared for Saint Mary’s,” Arizona senior guard Kadeem Allen said. “We know they’re a good three-point shooting team and we’re a good defending team of the three-point line, so we just have to bring our identity with us Saturday.”
For Arizona, at least this season, the team’s identity is a tad unfamiliar.
Known for being incredibly stout defensively and on the boards under Miller, this year’s Wildcats are very good at both aspects, but lately have been earning wins because of their offensive firepower.
Led by sophomore guard Allonzo Trier (17.3) and freshman forward Lauri Markkanen (15.7), Arizona averaged 77 points per game this season. Two other players — Rawle Alkins and Dusan Ristic — averaged 11.3 and 10.6 points, respectively, while Kadeem Allen chipped in 9.8.
“They can be really dangerous in transition, and they’re big on the boards,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said of the Wildcats, comparing the latter aspect of their game to VCU. “They have a few more ways to score; they’re pretty balanced, they have a lot of guys who can make a basket on that team.
“I think some of that, though, they get in transition, some guys get baskets in transition.”
The Wildcats’ balanced attack was evident in their Round 1 victory, when all five starters scored in double figures and two players — Markkanen and Alkins — scored 20 points.
It was just the third time in Arizona’s storied NCAA Tournament history where they reached the 100-point mark.
Miller highlighted how his team turned the ball over just seven times and made 24-of-28 free throws before pointing out that 32 of his team’s 36 made baskets were from two-point range.
“We utilized our size,” he said. “That’s important in a game like tonight, to play to your strengths.
“I think if you listen to us, I think the sentiment up here is we wish we felt better about our defensive effort, and I think we would have put together one heck of a game.”
For a team like Arizona, being able to advance with a comfortable win but still point to things that need to be improved on may be exactly what Miller wanted. After all, if there was any concern over his players being complacent, it was not evident following the game.
“We have to rebound the ball; that’s what we didn’t do today, and the game felt weird because we didn’t get stops,” Markkanen said Thursday. “Even though we were scoring on offense, they scored right back.”
Any message Miller may have sent was likely received. At least, it better be.
The way Miller sees it, Saint Mary’s will not beat themselves, so it will be up to Arizona to win by being the better team.
“Whether that’s turnovers, taking good shots, them — how they get back in transition — they do all the things that a great team does,” Miller said. “Randy Bennett doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the job that he does, and SaintMary’s is truly a good program.
“We know we’re in for a heck of a game.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 4:45 p.m. and the game can be seen on CBS.
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