LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t the rout many envisioned — West Virginia did a superb enough job playing the pansy for everyone in college basketball Thursday — but the end result still delivered an NCAA Tournament rematch that could prove classic.
Arizona received everything it expected and probably a little more than it desired from Xavier, but the Wildcats ultimately advanced with a 68-60 victory in a West Regional semifinal before 18,809 at Staples Center.
What it means: The Wildcats on Saturday will meet Wisconsin in an Elite Eight game at 3:09 p.m. with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Just like last year.
It happened 26 miles down the freeway in Anaheim, Calif., where the Badgers beat Arizona 64-63 in overtime and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan advanced to his first Final Four in 13 years leading the Badgers and emotionally spoke afterward about what the moment would have meant to his deceased father.
It was the day when a nation of fans came to know a 7-footer with guard skills named Frank Kaminsky. And it was a day when Arizona coach Sean Miller said losing such a game was like being in a terrible car crash.
“Obviously, it’s a big game, returning to the Elite Eight and playing the same team that we came up short against,” said Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, who had 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists Thursday. “We’re not going to make this any bigger than it already is. I don’t want this season to end. Refuse to lose. Do whatever it takes. We’re determined not to let this end.”
Wisconsin advanced Thursday by rallying to beat North Carolina 79-72. Now, the only thing that separates the region’s No. 1 seed from returning to the annual mecca of college basketball is a No. 2 seed with a rather sizable chip on its shoulder.
Here’s the thing: Arizona is better this season than last. Wisconsin is still, well, really good.
“The atmosphere will be great,” Miller said. “We’ve had all year to think about Wisconsin. I think that familiarity has to help us. It’s motivation to see if you can get back to this place and get it done. Here we are. We have to take advantage of it. That game (last year) could have gone either way. They know that.”
It also was not without controversy, specifically an offensive foul called against then Arizona junior and former Findlay Prep guard Nick Johnson with three seconds remaining in overtime and the Wildcats trailing by one. Johnson appeared to extend his arm when elevating for a midrange jumper.
He is gone, but has been replaced with a certain NBA lottery pick in freshman Stanley Johnson, who scored 12 points Thursday. And another former Findlay Prep standout, Brandon Ashley, missed last year’s tournament with a foot injury.
He is healthy now and playing some of his finest basketball since arriving in Tucson, averaging 12.2 points and 5.3 rebounds, having been named the Most Outstanding Player at the Pac-12 tournament a few weeks ago at the MGM Grand Garden.
“We watched Wisconsin go to the Final Four last year and lose at the buzzer to Kentucky,” McConnell said. “We thought that should be us. It drove us to work hard all summer and be as good as we have been this season and in this tournament. We have great respect for Wisconsin, but we’re going to come out ready and play Arizona basketball.”
There also will be intense pressure on Miller to get past this stage of the bracket. He is 0-3 in Elite Eight appearances, and the Wildcats have lost their last four regional finals by a total of seven points. Two of those setbacks reached overtime, the sort of close calls that prompted students to riot and confront police in Tucson after last year’s game.
“We lost to a great team, a team that has a very good chance to win the national championship,” said Xavier coach Chris Mack, who replaced his mentor in Miller as coach of the Musketeers when Miller departed for Arizona in 2009. “I just told (Miller) to win it all, that he has a great team. He already knows that, but we gave one of the best teams in the country everything it wanted and more.”
Probably even more than it desired, but the end result is this:
The rematch most wanted is set.
Wisconsin-Arizona II out west.
Could be a classic.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.