The Arizona Wildcats’ season ended rather unexpectedly Thursday as they fell 73-71 to the Xavier Musketeers in the Sweet 16.
Arizona led 69-61 with under four minutes to play, but faltered down the stretch, finding itself on the wrong end of a 12-2 run that allowed Xavier to advance to the Elite Eight.
Here’s what we learned about the Wildcats after their disappointing finish to the season.
Markkanen’s inactivity loomed large
With 14:19 left in the second half, Lauri Markkanen sank a mid-range jumper to put Arizona up 49-48.
Little did anybody know, those would be his final points of the season and — most likely — his final points in an Arizona uniform.
It was the second-to-last shot the freshman took, too. His final shot was taken three minutes later, with over 11 minutes left to go.
No, really. He did not take a shot in the final 11 minutes of the game.
From Arizona’s standpoint, that’s a hard realization to swallow. This is a guy that will be a top-10 NBA Draft pick in June. One shot in the final 11 minutes for a player of that caliber is damning.
In the end, Markkanen finished with nine points and eight rebounds in 39 minutes. In the second half, he had two points and one rebound.
Sean Miller, Markkanen, and his teammates are all partly to blame (Xavier’s zone defense deserves credit, too) but Arizona simply needed more production from its second-leading scorer.
Instead, the Wildcats relied too heavily on Allonzo Trier, and while he did deliver 15 straight points at one time, Arizona did not have a second player step up on the offensive end when he went cold.
That had been Markkanen’s role earlier in the tournament, but it did not come to fruition against Xavier and Arizona could not get the buckets it needed down the stretch to keep its Final Four hopes alive.
Allen’s early foul trouble was killer
Kadeem Allen, Arizona’s leader and defensive stalwart, picked up two fouls in roughly the first three minutes of the game.
With Allen off the floor, XU guard Trevon Bluiett feasted on the Wildcats’ defense.
The 6-foot-6 guard scored 18 of Xavier’s 35 first-half points, shooting 7-for-8 from the field as Allen only played five minutes in the period.
Without Bluiett’s excellence, Arizona’s halftime lead presumably would’ve been more than just two points.
Allen played the entire second half and Bluiett’s production reflected that.
The Xavier senior scored seven points on nine shots in the final 20 minutes. Unfortunately for Arizona, though, the rest of the Musketeers picked up the slack, which they did not do in the first half.
There is a lot that goes into to why one team won or lost, but this game has a much different look if Arizona would have had more resistance against Bluiett in the first 20 minutes of the game.
But Allen being nailed to the bench with foul trouble made that easier said than done.
Arizona’s defense had a glaring weakness this season
Allen’s absence was major, but the Wildcats’ interior defense was equally as detrimental.
Xavier shot 59 percent inside the arc and had 32 points off dunks and layups.
The lack of a rim-protection caught up to the Wildcats. With Chance Comanche only playing eight minutes (he had some struggles defensively in the first half), Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic were Arizona’s last line of defense against the Musketeers.
Xavier identified Markkanen as a “soft defender”, and Ristic, a player whose offensive value has always outweighed his defensive value, proved to be just as ineffective.
Shaky interior defense was a problem Arizona had all season, though, not one that emerged in San Jose. The Wildcats finished the year with a block percentage of 8.8, ranking 177th in the country.
That’s the lowest block percentage Arizona has posted in a season since 2009-10 when 6-foot-7 forwards Derrick Williams and Jesse Perry were the Wildcats’ interior defenders.
Taking that into account, it’s actually rather remarkable that Arizona’s defense was as good as it was this season.
In that 2009-10 season, Arizona’s defensive efficiency ranked 107th in the country, per KenPom. This season? 28th. Not great, but more than acceptable given the personnel.
It’s fair to criticize Miller for some aspects of his coaching this season — like his ongoing struggles to craft effective zone offenses which seem to be everlasting— but his ability to coach up a defense this season deserves praise.
Ultimately, however, the Wildcats just didn’t have the talent defensively to be as good as they needed to be and Xavier exposed it on a grand stage.
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