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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Wednesday / April 25.
  • Cinderella Lives On: 11-Seed Xavier Downs Arizona to Advance to Elite 8

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    Just when it seemed like a Saturday date between Gonzaga’s Mark Few and Arizona’s Sean Miller was inevitable—a hypothetical matchup of two of the game’s best coaches that have yet to reach a Final Four— Chris Mack and Xavier had to crash the party.

    Xavier, an 11-seed that did not punch its at-large ticket until a Big East Tournament quarterfinal win over Butler, is headed to the Elite 8 following a 73-71 win over 2-seed Arizona on Thursday in San Jose. The Musketeers will play Gonzaga on Saturday in the West Region final (6:09 p.m. ET, TBS) for a spot in the Final Four.

    Trevon Bluiett dropped 25 points to lead Xavier, while Malcolm Bernard scored all of his season-high 15 points in the second half. Do-it-all junior J.P. Macura added 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 dimes for good measure.

    The curtains appeared to be closing on Xavier’s Cinderella story, as the Musketeers trailed by eight points with under four minutes to go. Then Bluiett and Bernard nailed back-to-back three-pointers, Allonzo Trier (19 points, 8-of-19 shooting) elected to settle for jump shots again over the top of X’s effective zone defense, and foolish fouls by Trier and Lauri Markkanen (just 9 points on 3-of-9 shooting) allowed Xavier to tie the game at 71-all via free throws.

    With under a minute left, Mack, an assistant under Miller for five seasons before the latter departed for Tucson, employed the two-for-one strategy to perfection.

    Sean O’Mara scored the go-ahead bucket on a nifty post feed from Bluiett, and Kadeem Allen missed a jumper on the other end.

    The Wildcats had one last chance after O’Mara clanked the front end of a one-and-one, but Trier’s potential game-tying three rimmed out—Arizona missed its final five field goal attempts—giving Xavier the upset victory.

    Here are five quick thoughts from Thursday’s nail-biter.

    How is Chris Mack and Xavier doing this? 

    For the latest definition of March Madness, consider this: On the 1st of March, Xavier allowed 95 points in a home defeat to Marquette, resulting in the Musketeers’ sixth straight loss.

    Not only was X trending toward the wrong side of the bubble—for an entire month, the only team they beat was DePaul, three times—but they were also down two starting guards for the season in point guard Edmond Sumner (to a torn ACL) and Myles Davis, who chose to leave the program after only three games this year.

    Now, Mack and company are 40 minutes away from the Final Four in Phoenix.

    Trevon Bluiett is beyond big time.

    Xavier is 6-1 since that six-game losing streak, with the lone setback coming versus Creighton in the Big East Tournament semifinals. Bluiett is averaging 22.4 points over this duration, making 55 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes despite constantly drawing the opposition’s top perimeter defender.

    On Thursday, that was Allen in what amounted to a classic battle—the two even received double technicals at one point in the second half. Bluiett got the last laugh, accounting for 5 points of Xavier’s game-ending 12-2 spurt.

    We get to see more Bill Murray.

    Can that ever be a bad thing?

    Murray’s son, Luke, is an assistant coach at Xavier. The legendary actor played the role of proud father after Thursday’s win.

    Knowing Bill’s theatrics, he probably has something extra up his sleeve should the Musketeers beat Gonzaga on Saturday.

    Heartbreak continues for Sean Miller.

     “One of the best coaches to never make a Final Four” is not the title Arizona’s Sean Miller is looking for, but it’s one he’ll have to settle with for yet another season.

    Miller has led the Wildcats to five Sweet 16’s, including three Elite 8’s, during his eight seasons since bolting from Xavier—but never the national semifinals.

    For comparison’s sake, Mack has taken Xavier to four Sweet 16’s over the same span, including Saturday—Mack’s first-ever Elite 8 appearance as head coach.

    Let’s be real for a second: Miller enjoyed a terrific season. Arizona went 32-5 despite being led in scoring by a trio of freshman (Markkanen, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons) until Trier returned after serving a 19-game PED-related suspension. That’s not to mention the rough preseason Miller had to endure, stemming from Ray Smith’s decision to retire due to a third torn ACL and Terrance Ferguson committing to U of A before heading overseas.

    Still, Miller will not get the credit he deserves until he gets the proverbial monkey off his back by leading Arizona to the Final Four.

    Could next year be the year for Miller? 

    Kadeem Allen is the only notable senior graduating this spring, but Markkanen—projected as the 8th overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft per Draft Express—is as good as gone while Trier (projected by Draft Express to go 36th in 2018), Simmons (49th in 2017) and Alkins (46th in 2018) could all conceivably test the waters as well.

    The Wildcats do have a loaded incoming recruiting class, highlighted by five-star 7-foot center DeAndre Ayton in addition to a trio of four-stars in shooting guard Brandon Randolph, power forward Ira Lee, and point guard Alex Barcello. Miller may not be done beefing up that class, either.

    Photo: The Cincinnati Enquirer

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