CINCINNATI -- Two years ago, Sean O’Mara suited up for Xavier’s Sweet 16 game against Arizona in Los Angeles and watched the outing from the bench.
O’Mara was just a freshman then, and frontcourt minutes were doled out to the older and more seasoned Jalen Reynolds, James Farr and Matt Stainbrook. The story of O’Mara’s rookie season could have been titled “Improving,” with several chapters devoted to the strides he made practicing against those teammates.
Thursday’s Sweet 16 rematch between 11th-seeded Xavier (23-13) and second-seeded Arizona (32-4) in San Jose figures to be much different for the 6-foot-10 forward/center from Illinois.
The 244-pound O’Mara, a rare XU recruit that also played football as a high school senior, spent last summer reshaping his body and working out with former NBA player and coach John Lucas in hopes of having a breakout year.
The junior cracked the starting rotation in Xavier’s first eight games this season but struggled with inconsistency and battled for minutes with RaShid Gaston and Tyrique Jones. In some games O’Mara played sparingly and didn’t score at all.
After gaining momentum in the Big East Tournament, he’s now playing the best basketball of his career. O’Mara scored a career-high 18 points in Xavier’s NCAA tournament first-round defeat of Maryland. He contributed 11 points in the Musketeers’ second-round victory over Florida State.
“I think confidence is everything in the game of basketball. I think that he’s taking advantage of his opportunities,” coach Chris Mack said. “He’s always been a guy that can really score with his back to the basket. He’s making his free throws and that’s even boosting his confidence I think even more. He’s 15-of-16, I believe, in the NCAA tournament.”
Indeed he is, by virtue of reaching the foul line more than ever.
O’Mara’s inspired play has helped Xavier establish a reliable and productive frontcourt presence, which in turn has made the team more difficult to defend.
“We’ve played a couple teams that like to pressure, and the great pressure release is to be able to throw the ball inside. And if you have a guy that can score it, it opens up those looks from the perimeter. We’re going to continue to try to feed Sean, Tyrique and RaShid in hopes that they can continue to deliver,” Mack said.
O’Mara will help provide a foil to Arizona’s long frontcourt, which includes 7-foot, 245-pound junior Dusan Ristic (10.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and 6-11, 215-pound sophomore Chance Comanche (6.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg).
XU and Arizona tip off at 10:09 p.m. on TBS. The winner faces top-seeded Gonzaga or fourth-seeded West Virginia in the Elite Eight.
WATCH HIM WHILE YOU CAN: Arizona freshman sensation Lauri Markkanen is going to be one of Xavier’s biggest challenges, but that’s not a big surprise. The Finland native is a headache for most opponents.
The 7-foot, 230-pound forward is a projected Top 10 pick in multiple outlets’ NBA mock drafts. Known for his quick trigger and ability to step out and shoot 3-pointers (at a 43.3 percent clip, no less), Markkanen has the potential to be a nightmare match-up.
He averages 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and ranks third on Arizona’s all-time freshman scoring list.
“I haven’t seen that many guys in college like him. It’s unique. Just when you think, ‘Well, maybe he can’t do this…’ you watch another game on the computer and you’re like, ‘Man.’ He just seems like he can do a little bit of everything,” Mack said.
“Some guys that are 7 feet tall and aren’t built like Shaquille O’Neal, you say, ‘Well, maybe they’re a little soft.’ And the moment you get a guard on them on a switch, he rolls them right into the post and shoots the ball from 1 foot away. He’s really talented.”
Markkanen endured a four-game slump in early February in which he shot just 20 percent and scored most of his points from the free-throw line. He has been on a roll since then, putting up double figures in the last 10 games. Three of those outings featured double-doubles.
“I’ve seen all the stories, all the comments that Sean (Miller has) made about Lauri,” Mack said. “He doesn’t dole out those compliments in those type of stories unless they’re true. He’s not the average guy you find in college basketball often.”
KEYS TO THE GAME: Arizona’s four regular-season losses came to opponents that are now in the Sweet 16 -- Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon and UCLA -- reinforcing the idea that Miller’s team is built for March. Xavier has to play as well as it did against Florida State, and then some, to hold off the Wildcats.
Mack said the keys to the game will be taking care of the ball, generating good shots against Arizona’s size, keeping the Wildcats out of transition, and winning the rebounding battle. By taking care of details, Mack said the Musketeers “give ourselves a chance to compete in the last four-minute war to win the game.”
Arizona’s leading scorer is 6-5 sophomore guard Allonzo Trier (17.1 ppg) but the Wildcats have depth and an arsenal of shooters. In fact, five Wildcats have averaged 42.9 percent 3-point shooting or better in the five games of the Pac-12 Tournament and NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats’ worst loss by far was an 85-58 rout at then-No. 13 Oregon Feb. 4. If there is a blueprint to be taken from that blowout, it’s that Miller’s team scored just 18 first-half points behind 25.9 percent shooting and never recovered. Oregon buried 16 3-pointers throughout and scored 30 points off turnovers.