After Sean Miller was fired amidst scandal, many were unsure where he’d coach next.
When the opportunity arose, he went back to his roots, landing with an Xavier Musketeers program where he was an assistant and later head coach for nearly a decade.
In just his first year on the job, Miller has the program back in the national spotlight. Travis Steele failed to make an NCAA tournament in four years leading the Musketeers, while Miller has Xavier back dancing as a 3-seed.
His reward for a dramatic comeback first-round win comes as another return to his roots: the Pittsburgh Panthers. Miller played at Pitt, where he still sits second on the school’s all-time assists list.
The cameras will be all over the always-emotional Miller, yet that shouldn’t take away from the play on the court, where two competitive teams will battle for a spot in the Sweet 16.
It’s hard to imagine a better draw in the luck department than Pitt has seen so far in this tournament.
In the First Four, the Panthers met Mississippi State, statistically the worst 3-point shooting team in the nation. The Bulldogs lived up to that billing, shooting 6-of-23 from deep, including a wide-open look that would have won the game in the final seconds.
Pitt’s first-round game then included a narrative surrounding Iowa State’s first-half basket. The Cyclones asked for the rim to be checked pre-game, either finding an issue or, at the very least, limiting warm-up time.
Asked the NCAA about the stoppage of Iowa State’s warmup and work done on the basket.
“Iowa State asked us during pregame warmups to check if the rim was level. Building personnel checked it and made a minor adjustment prior to the game beginning.”
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) March 17, 2023
Iowa State then shot 23% from the field, among the worst mark’s in NCAA tournament history.
Before you cry foul, it’s worth noting that after falling down 22-4, Iowa State made a charge late in the first half and Pitt actually expanded its lead while shooting on the potent problem hoop in the second half.
The Cyclones have no excuse but their own offensive ineptitude.
Pitt, meanwhile, shouldn’t just get lumped aside as “lucky to have made it this far.” The Panthers’ defense has been stingy and should be commended.
Plus, the good luck might continue, facing a Xavier team that trailed by double-digits in the second half on Friday and nearly fought amongst itself in the game’s final minutes.
For the majority of Friday’s game, it didn’t look like Xavier would find a way to advance. The Musketeers looked sluggish and outmatched, facing a 14-seed.
The Xavier offense was listless, while the defense was worse. The Musketeers simply couldn’t stay in front of penetrating Kennesaw State players.
That’s not necessarily new for Xavier. Souley Boum and Adam Kunkel aren’t high-level defenders, which Kennesaw State exploited. It wasn’t until Colby Jones switched onto Terrell Burden that the Musketeers found a way to keep the Owls’ point guard out of the paint.
That will continue to be a flaw for Xavier and may have been why Boum and Kunkel got into the aforementioned altercation.
The defensive lapses, however, aren’t as serious when Xavier’s offense performs at its typical level. The X-men shot just 2-of-12 from long range, while also struggling to finish around the rim.
As Xavier accepts and fully adjusts to life with Zach Freemantle sidelined for the season with an injury, the contributors around Boum will need to step up and find ways to attack the holes in opposing defenses.
I would lean towards an Xavier bounce-back performance in this game, yet the troubles extend beyond a 40-minute blip against Kennesaw State.
In Xavier’s last four games, the Musketeers were outplayed but survived a test from DePaul, routed in the Big East title game and nearly toppled in the Round of 64.
That skips Xavier dismantling Creighton at Madison Square Garden last week, just further proof of the volatility of this team.
That’s enough to scare me away from either side, but I think there’s value on the total.
Pitt’s two tournament games have both stayed beneath 120 total points and the Panthers have struggled to score against quality opponents all year long.
Pitt has topped 76 points against an at-large quality team just once in 11 tries. In 14 games against KenPom top-60 opponents, Pitt only hit 70 points six times.
Jeff Capel has to know that his team can’t outscore Xavier in a back-and-forth game. Pitt will lean into making this game a slog, making the under the play for me.
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