It's not the power conference team most expected Louisville to meet this evening, but let's take a deeper look at the only thing standing between the Cardinals and a second straight trip to the Elite Eight.
What Arizona Does Well
1. Be Talented
Though the Wildcats are the lone remaining double-digit seed in the Tournament, point guard Nic Wise, forward Chase Budinger and big man Jordan Hill might be as strong a trio as any of the other 11 teams still playing can field. Hill and Budinger are expected to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft if they choose to leave school a year early, the former widely projected to be a top ten selection, and Wise's play over the last six weeks has him also wondering whether or not sticking around for his final collegiate season is the best choice.
In games where the big three has scored at least 15 points apiece, Arizona is 8-0.
2. Be Efficient On Offense
Though 'Zona loves to get out and score points in transition, they're also superb when it comes to getting the right shot out of their half-court sets. The Wildcats rank 16th in the country in offensive efficiency (111.5), 23rd in field goal percentage (47.7%) and 21st in three-point field goal percentage (39.1%).
They haven't settled for bad shots all season, a trend that must continue against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Like Louisville, Arizona loves stealing cheap points with backcourt pressure. They aren't deep at the guard position, but that doesn't stop Russ Pennell from trying to utilize every bit of his team's athleticism for 40 minutes.
4. Run The Floor
Louisville may not have faced a frontcourt as athletic as Hill, Budinger and Jamelle Horne all season. The three stand 6-10, 6-7 and 6-7, respectively, and are all capable of sprinting to the offensive end of the floor, catching the ball on the fly and finishing the play. U of L's bigs struggled to get back some in each Big East Tournament game, a point that I'm sure has been emphasized throughout this week.
5. Get Back On Defense
This goes hand-in-hand with No. 4, but it's hard to score points off of missed shots and turnovers when facing a team with a frontcourt as big and athletic as Arizona's. Hill is far and away the team's best shot blocker, and a healthy chunk of his rejections come in transition.
6. Shoot Free-Throws
The Wildcats shoot just below 74% from the free-throw line as a team, good for 30th best in the country. Nic Wise, Chase Budinger, Jamelle Horne and Zane Johnson are all right around or above 80% from the charity stripe.
What Arizona Does Not Do Well
1. Be Deep
Yes, 'Zona's top three players are as good as any in the Tournament, but the reason they were the last or second-to-last at-large team selected is because of the lack of support they have for Wise, Hill and Budinger.
Each of the Wildcats' big three averages over 35 minutes of floor time per game, with Budinger leading the way at 37.7 mpg. Horne and two guard Kyle Fogg don't see the bench much either, in fact, all five starters played at least 32 minutes against Cleveland State, and the same would have likely held true against Utah had Horne not gotten into foul trouble.
No reserve outside of Zane Johnson has seen double-digit minute playing time in the month of March. That's a major concern for a pressing team going up against a pressing team whose major strength is its depth.
2. Defend Out Of The Zone
The Wildcats have utilized both man and zone defenses over the course of the season, but they'll likely throw a healthy dose of 2-3 at U of L this evening in an attempt to save some legs. The bad news for 'Zona is that when in zone, they struggle to defend the perimeter and prevent dribble penetration into the lane.
Statistically, Arizona is the worst defensive team remaining in the Tournament, allowing opponents to shoot nearly 50% from the floor. They don't force many turnovers and don't seem particularly interested in defending the three-point line. Louisville has gained the reputation of a streaky shooting team, but they've been pretty good from outside this season against teams that have left their shooters un-marked.
3. Box Out
Despite its athletic forwards, second-chance points have been surprisingly easy to come by for opponents of Arizona this season. Samardo Samuels, Earl Clark and Terrence Williams have been crashing the offensive glass with increased intensity this postseason, something that could play a huge role in a game where depth-perception could very well lead to poor outside shooting.
4. Defend Out-Of-Bounds Plays
This would be a much bigger deal if we had any.
5. Have Rick Pitino
From a coaching standpoint, an Arizona victory over Louisville tonight would be the equivalent of Douglas knocking out Tyson.
Rick Pitino is 8-0 in the Sweet 16, winning those games by an average of 21 points. Two years ago, Russ Pennell was singing in a church choir.
I'll take our guy.
6. Play Well Late In Close Games
I'll let this video do the talking.
7. Have History On Its Side
The Wildcats are the 22nd team seeded 12th or lower to reach the Sweet 16 since 1985. Only Missouri in 2002 advanced to the Elite Eight.
Jordan Hill F, 6-10 (18.4 ppg/11.0 rpg)
There haven't been many times this season when Earl Clark has been on the floor with a player whose next-level prospects are higher than his, but that will be the case when he faces off against Jordan Hill this evening.
The 6-10 Hill can do just about everything: finish on the break, finish off the pick, knock down short jumpers, block shots, explode off the floor, pass out of the post. Though he's improved tremendously over the last three seasons, his biggest flaws remain poor footwork in the post and an inability to stay out of foul trouble.
His natural ability and still untapped potential have NBA scouts drooling, but he's still prone to committing silly fouls and making poor decisions with the ball in his hands. The good news for Arizona is that an up-tempo game like the one expected tonight is where Hill flourishes and is able to mask his still relatively low basketball IQ.
Expect to see Earl Clark and Terrence Williams go right at Hill from the wings of the zone, because Arizona has no chance to spring the upset if the big man doesn't play at least 30 minutes.
Chase Budinger F, 6-7 (17.9 PPG/6.3 RPG)
About as naturally gifted an offensive player as there is in college basketball, Budinger could have bolted for the pros after either his freshman or sophomore season, but surprised a bevy of people by choosing to stay in Tucson.
The bouncy Budinger is more than capable of beating fellow forwards off the dribble, and is an accurate shooter from three feet beyond the college three-point line. He's a tremendous elevator, making his jump shot nearly impossible to block if he has created any separation at all.
Budinger's main weakness has been and continues to be his play on the defensive end. He doesn't move very well laterally, which puts him at an extreme disadvantage when matched up with forwards who are prolific off the bounce (see: Williams, Terrence; also: Clark, Earl). Rebounding is another area he's never appeared particularly concerned with, although he has improved his average this season to a career-best 6.3 rpg.
The flaws listed in the previous paragraph are probably what have kept him in college for three years, but he's still a guy more than capable of having a night where he scores 35-40 points and leads his team to a victory over a better squad.
Nic Wise G, 5-10 (15.7 PPG/2.4 RPG)
Though Budinger and Hill nab the vast majority of the accolades, it's floor general Nic Wise who is the most important player on Russ Pennell's team.
Wise's play over the last few weeks has elicited comparisons to former 'Zona great Mike Bibby, and while he certainly has a long way to go to make those comparisons accurate, he does use the high screen - Bibby's forte - about as well as any point guard in college basketball.
Wise leads Arizona in free-throw percentage (85.5%), three-point field goal percentage (42.4%), assists (4.6 apg) and steals (1.5 spg). He's deadly on the drive and when given too much space from the outside. He can create his own outside shot off of the pick against a man defense, and find the open space against a zone. He's leading the Wildcats in scoring in the NCAA Tournament (21 points against Utah, 29 against Cleveland State) and is averaging a team-high 21 points in the month of March.
Pound-for-pound, the muscular wise is probably 'Zona's best defender. He spearheads the Wildcat press and isn't afraid to pressure opposing ballhandlers in the halfcourt.
How fresh Wise is and whether or not he has any legs on his jump shot during the final ten minutes of the game will be paramount.
Jamelle Horne F, 6-7 (6.9 ppg/5.1 rpg)
To have any hope of making the NCAA Tournament for the 25th straight year Arizona had to have a third forward step up and be able to play big minutes, and Horne has been able to do just that in his sophomore season.
Horne is another tremendous athlete who excels in transition, and, like Budinger and Hill, he's an explosive leaper. He's greatly improved his jump shot and is now fully capable of knocking down the mid-range jumper as well as the occasional uncontested three-pointer.
Horne isn't very muscular, a fact which directly correlates with his low rebounding numbers. He also goes through periods of time where he appears lazy on the defensive end, something he can't do against a team with wings as talented as Louisville's.
Kyle Fogg G, 6-2 (6.2 ppg/2.5 rpg)
Fogg, a freshman, wasn't expected to be thrust into a starting role this quickly, but the mass exodus of Wildcats during the preseason Lute Olson drama left Pennell with no choice. To his credit, Fogg has responded, scoring in double figures eight times on the season and playing 30 or more minutes in eight of Arizona's last ten games.
Fogg is a good, not great, shooter whose confidence has blossomed along with the season. He doesn't handle as much of the ballhandling duties as you'd expect a two guard to, but he's capable of taking some of the pressure off of Wise and Budinger if need be.
He isn't a player who's going to kill you by hitting shots off of the bounce or locking down your top scorer, but he knows his role on the team and plays it as well as he can.
Zane Johnson G, 6-5 (4.6 ppg/1.8 rpg)
Johnson is the only Arizona reserve who has seen major minutes during the latter portion of the season. He's able to play a number of positions, which allows the starters to take turns on the bench while he stays in the game.
Though he generally leaves the scoring to the big three, Johnson isn't afraid to occasionally let it fly from deep, despite his awkward shooting style. He has hit at least one three-pointer in 17 of Arizona's last 21 games.
While calling him a "little guy" is a stretch, he does not match up with the Louisville frontline favorably.
Brendon Lavender G, 6-3 (0.6 ppg/0.2 rpg)
Lavender has seen his court time increase down the stretch partly because of the off-the-court issues plaguing fellow freshman guard Garland Judkins. He's played in each of Arizona's last ten games, but has scored just four points over that span.
Alex Jacobson C, 6-11 (1.1 ppg/1.2 rpg)
The freshman big man is a major work in progress who will only see the floor if Hill and Horne both run into major foul trouble.
Garland Judkins G, 6-3 (2.4 ppg/0.9 rpg)
A talented scorer in high school, Judkins has been suspended three times during his freshman season and hasn't seen the floor in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona's big three is a more talented offensive trio than Louisville's big three, I'm willing to admit that, but the Wildcats' lack of depth and propensity for defensive lapses still leave them with an enormous mountain to climb this evening.
The Cards are going to be able to get open looks tonight, but how well they'll be able to shoot in a football stadium is a major issue. If they aren't hitting from the outside, then Samuels, Williams and Clark have to take advantage of 'Zona's reluctance to rebound and string together a bounty of second-chance points.
I realize Arizona's lack of depth wasn't a factor in their up-and-down win over Cleveland State, but Louisville isn't Cleveland State, and the Wildcats haven't faced the kind of constant ball pressure they're going to see tonight. For 'Zona to have a shot, I really think they need to build a big lead early with Budinger and Wise hitting everything they throw up and U of L's shooters starting ice cold, and then hope they can hold off the Cards in the last ten minutes of the game. If things are tight for the first 30 or 35 minutes, then Louisville should have an enormous advantage in crunch time.