March S[imulation]adness: Marist-Arizona preview

The MAAC heavyweight vs the Pac-12 Phoenix

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In 2016-17, Marist and Arizona were in a similar place. Both finished just below .500 on the year. The story of how they got there and what has happened since is very different.

For Marist, 2016-17 was one of only two seasons in the past decade with fewer than 20 wins. Over that period, they have won as many as 31 games at their best, taking out No. 17 Iowa State in the opening round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament before being edged out by Duke in the second round.

It’s been a very different story for Arizona. The Wildcats have not seen an NCAA berth since 2005. The decade prior to that had them in the tournament eight times, but the program had mostly disappeared from the national conversation until last year. Their two best seasons since 2005 were WNIT appearances–a first-round loss in 2011 and last year’s WNIT title.

How they got here

The Red Foxes went 26-4 on the year and 18-2 in their league, with their best opponent being Princeton. That is the biggest difference between Marist and Arizona, which went 24-7 (12-6, Pac-12).

According to analytics site Her Hoop Stats, Arizona had 11 games against the top 50 teams. The Wildcats went 6-5 with three of the losses coming to Oregon, who comes in at No. 1 in those ratings. Marist had the loss against Princeton as their lone top-50 opponent. The Tigers are rated No. 6 by that service.

The Wildcats finished with the fourth seed in the Pac-12 tournament earlier this month, losing in the semifinals to the regular-season and tournament champion Oregon Ducks. The Red Foxes were edged out by Rider for the No. 1 seed in the MAAC tournament, beating the top seed once in the regular season and losing to them in overtime in their other match-up.

The two teams had one common opponent, which both handled easily. Arizona took down Monmouth 86-34 in a game that saw multiple Arizona players injured. Most importantly, starting forward Dominique McBryde played only 14 minutes before suffering an ankle injury. She would sit out for the next five weeks.

The Red Foxes faced the Hawks three times. The first game was a 10-point win at home, followed by a 21-point victory on the road. In their only game before the MAAC Tournament was called off, Marist defeated Monmouth 68-44 in the quarterfinals.

What are their strengths?

According to Her Hoop Stats, this is a match-up of a defensive-minded team against an offensive-focused side. Arizona is ranked the No. 12 defense in their estimation. Marist sits just inside the top 100 at No. 90.

Marist sits above Arizona on the offensive side of the court, coming in at No. 21 to the Wildcats’ No. 34. The problem for Marist is that the offensive gap is not as wide in the Red Foxes’ favor as the defensive gap is in the Wildcats’.

When comparing those strengths and weaknesses, the strength of schedule makes a huge difference. Yes, Marist averaged 73.3 points per game compared to 69.1 for Arizona, but only eight of the Wildcats’ opponents were outside Her Hoop Stats’ top 125 and only seven stood outside the top 200. For Marist, those numbers jump to 24 outside the top 125 and 17 outside the top 200.

The Wildcats take a lot of criticism for their out-of-conference scheduling, but it makes a huge difference when they play teams like Oregon three times a year in their league. For the Red Foxes, they can’t make up that level of competition within their league, so their numbers are more difficult to project when facing tougher opponents.

Who to watch?

One of the best players in the tournament, let alone this game, will be in the cardinal and navy of Arizona. If she’s eligible for an award, Aari McDonald is in the running. After being the top returning scorer in Division I when the season started, she has settled into 20.6 ppg. That’s tops in the Pac-12 and tenth in the nation.

The problem for opponents is that McDonald is not just an offensive juggernaut. She’s a defensive pest, too.

The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year also leads the league in steals per game. While it’s helped by being one of the only Wildcats who is encouraged to crash the offensive boards, her rebounding puts her second on the team despite being listed as a generous 5-foot-6.

If you’re an aficionado of great defense, Arizona’s Sam Thomas is another one to keep an eye on. If it were not for her teammate getting the nod, Thomas may have brought the DPOY award back to Tucson, anyway. She ended up on the five-player Pac-12 All-Defensive squads picked by both the coaches and the media.

Thomas is able to handle the perimeter and the post. She is the only Pac-12 player to have at least 40 steals and 40 blocks this season, ending the year with 48 and 42, respectively. Her 31-point outburst at Utah and 37.9 percent accuracy from beyond the arc also show that she can be an offensive threat when she lets it fly.

Cate Reese is reliable for double-digits in scoring. She also leads the Wildcats in rebounding, although that has never been a strong suit of this team.

For Marist, their offensive prowess is backed up by having a trio of seniors averaging double digits. Guard Rebekah Hand leads the way with 18 ppg. Her backcourt mate Grace Vander Weide adds 11.4 and leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game. Both connect on better than 40 percent of their 3-point shots.

Forward Alana Gilmer is another high-scorer the Wildcats have to keep an eye on. The senior is good for 17.1 ppg and hit 20 of 60 from outside this season.

How can Marist come out on top?

The Wildcats have shown that they can be vulnerable to the 3-point shot. While it’s difficult to replicate Oregon’s efficiency, Arizona lost Erin Boley several times in the Pac-12 semifinals. They also have had a couple of games late in the season where they were overly aggressive on defense and fouled 3-point shooters.

Marist can also attempt to get the Wildcats in foul trouble. The whistles have been a struggle for Arizona, especially late in the season. In the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, they had three key players carrying four fouls from late in the third quarter. In California’s upset of the Wildcats on senior day, Dominique McBryde struggled with fouls and eventually fouled out. She was not on the floor to box out the putback that eventually won the game for the Golden Bears.

How can Arizona win?

As Arizona’s coaches and players have said many times this season, the Wildcats just need to do what they do. Their calling card as a team is defense, but they will need people not named McDonald to step up on offense. Reese has been the secondary scorer, but it never hurts to have more than two options. The more reliable the third or fourth options are the better Arizona’s chances.

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