The Arizona Wildcats are a mere two wins away from reaching the Final Four.
To get there, No. 1 seed Arizona (33-3) must win the South Regional in San Antonio by getting past the No. 5 Houston Cougars (31-5) in the Sweet 16 and then beating either the No. 2 Villanova Wildcats or the No. 11 Michigan Wolverines in the Elite Eight.
The UA has a lot working in its favor, such as the size of Christian Koloko, Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo as well as the spectacular play of wing Bennedict Mathurin. There are also some factors working against Arizona, namely the athleticism and shooting of its upcoming opponent(s) and its lack of postseason experience.
Here is why Arizona will or won’t make the Final Four.
Why Arizona will make the Final Four
Arizona’s size will overwhelm the competition
If there’s one area where Arizona has a distinct advantage in its upcoming games, it’s size. The Wildcats’ combination of Koloko, Tubelis and Ballo will be too much for Houston and Villanova or Michigan to overcome. Arizona’s front court success begins with Koloko, who is playing with all-time high confidence coming off a 28-point, 12-rebound outing against TCU. Koloko, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, should limit Houston center Josh Carlton in the paint.
Houston doesn’t have the size down the roster to compete with Arizona’s depth at center and power forward. The Cougars’ next tallest player, after 6-foot-11 Carlton, is 6-8. Villanova doesn’t have a rotation player above 6-8. Michigan center Hunter Dickinson struggled head-to-head with Koloko when the two squared off back in November.
The Wildcats will need more production out of Tubelis than they received in the Round of 32, when he recorded just five points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. Ballo, meanwhile, has been limited offensively so far this postseason but his physicality on defense causes a problem for Arizona's next opponents. If the 3-headed monster of Koloko, Ballo and Tubelis can exploit their size advantage, they’ll come out of the South Regional victorious.
The Wildcats have the best player on the court in Bennedict Mathurin
In the NCAA tournament, the team with the best player often wins and Arizona has that in Mathurin. The Montreal native showed why he’s a likely NBA lottery pick by scoring 30 points against TCU, including a game-tying three-pointer in regulation that kept Arizona’s season alive. Mathurin plays with a refuse to lose demeanor that will carry the UA through the inevitable highs and lows of the upcoming games.
Mathurin has been Arizona’s best scorer all season, but his aggression waned at times during the regular season. Despite being 6-6 and 210 pounds, he didn’t always play into his tremendous size. A flip switched during the Pac-12 Tournament final against UCLA, when he picked up foul after foul in lieu to a career-high 13 free throws on 15 attempts. Mathurin played with similar force against TCU, making 11 of 13 free throws.
Mathurin is a matchup nightmare for Houston and Villanova or Michigan. Houston’s Taze Moore and Villanova’s Justin Moore are both undersized compared to Mathurin. The Wolverines might have the best defense for Mathurin in 6-8 freshman Caleb Houstan. A fellow Canadian, Houstan had an abysmal performance when the two teams faced off in November. Ultimately, it might not matter who is thrown to stop Mathurin. If he wants his way, he’s shown he can get it.
Why Arizona won’t make the Final Four
The turnovers have spiked since Kerr Kriisa’s injury
In the four games since Kriisa went down with an ankle injury in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, the UA has turned the ball over 64 times. That’s the second-most turnovers the Wildcats have committed over a 4-game stretch this season. Kriisa’s return against TCU didn’t shore up the turnover problems, as Arizona coughed the ball up 16 times.
Up until now, Arizona hasn’t had to pay the price for its offensive miscues. TCU only scored 12 points off turnovers, while Wright State scored only eight points on 19 takeaways. Arizona won’t be so lucky against Houston.
The Cougars rank in the top 20 nationally in steal percentage, according to KenPom.com. Houston is also exceptional at limiting opponents’ shooting and rebounding its own misses, which gives Arizona even less margin for error. In the UA’s three regular season losses, it averaged 15.7 turnovers. If the Wildcats’ turnover rate is around that number Thursday, it will likely spell the end of their season.
Experience is not on the Wildcats’ side
Arizona is the least experienced team in the Sweet 16. On the other side of the court Thursday is a group coming off a Final Four run last year. Advantage Cougars. Sure, experience isn’t everything in March Madness, but it certainly helps when the pressure is on. Arizona withstood that pressure against an equally inexperienced TCU team Sunday. Houston won’t collapse so easily.
The Cougars’ backcourt runs through Jamaal Shead, a sophomore who mostly took in Houston’s Final Four run from the bench last year, and Kyler Edwards, a senior transfer from Texas Tech who was apart of the Red Raiders’ trip to the 2019 national title game. Both guys know what it takes to when in this round of the NCAA tournament.
If Arizona is fortunate enough to get past Houston, it will likely face Villanova in the Elite Eight, coached by Jay Wright, winner of two national titles (guard Collin Gillespie was a freshman on the 2018 championship team). Tommy Lloyd, on the other hand, is trying to become just the second first-year head coach to ever lead his team to the Final Four (Bill Guthridge did so with North Carolina in 1998). It’s hard not to side with Wright in that matchup.