LOS ANGELES – What must the Arizona Wildcats have thought Thursday night when they saw Matt Stainbrook? No matter how many scouting reports they had read, if it had been the playground or the Y instead of Staples Center, they would have taken one look and prayed the other team picked him. One all-American may have nudged his all-American buddy in the ribs and said, “Get a load of this dude.”
They saw the pudge around his midsection, the overgrown scruff on his face, the Rec-Specs strapped to his head, the pads on his knees, the uncombed blonde mop above his receding hairline, the loose T-shirt under his jersey and the acne on his forehead. They may have laughed. And then Matt Stainbrook darn near whipped all their asses back to Tucson.
Every NCAA tournament deserves a hero like Stainbrook, a not-quite-everyman – he is 6-foot-10, after all – who carries his unheralded team into college basketball’s deep end. Stainbrook nearly became that player, and Xavier nearly became that team, but Arizona is the caliber of team that crushes heroes. It survived Stainbrook and outlasted the Musketeers in a 68-60 victory that sent them to the West Region final for a rematch with top-seeded Wisconsin.
So the non-Kentucky portion of this tournament does not belong to Stainbrook, who poured in 17 points, snared 10 rebounds and annoyed the living hell out of the Wildcats all night. It belongs instead to T.J. McConnell, the 6-foot-1 Arizona senior point guard whom teammates regard with a mixture of reverence and awe. In a game Xavier led deep in the second half, McConnell scored 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out five assists.
The Wildcats trailed by four with 12 minutes 30 seconds left, and when they grew nervous they turned to McConnell. Surrounded by lanky, skilled forwards like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley, he was just too good.
Stainbrook’s career ended, but not without its moments. Stainbrook’s appearance became even more delightfully goofy when he stood next to Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski, who might be chiseled from granite. They would probably call him “Zeus” even if it didn’t rhyme with the middle syllable of his last name. If you were building the ideal basketball body, you’d be tempted to start with Tarczewski’s shoulders.
But when Stainbrook’s paunch met Tarczewski’s brawn, Stainbrook kept getting in Tarczewski’s way, and he also kept spinning around him or drawing enough contact to shoot a couple free throws. He would slam his body into Zeus in just the right away, at just the right time. His soft touch and spins and hooks kept producing points.
And then Stainbrook lumbered down the court, anchored himself at the middle of Xavier’s zone and thwarted Arizona’s front line. He turned away Arizona’s wing players, including lottery-pick-to-be Johnson, once they penetrated past the Musketeers’ first layer.
Once Arizona resisted Xavier initial second-half push, though, the game took on a feel of inevitability. Arizona had too much firepower, and Xavier didn’t have enough depth or outside shooting. At the end, Stainbrook walked off the court as Arizona shot meaningless free throws. He stopped to hug a teammate and then embrace Coach Chris Mack. If any of the Arizona players looked, they would have seen the player who almost ended their season. They would have seen a hell of a player.
“He definitely doesn’t look like that superstar kind of player,” Ashley said. “But he plays like one.”