ESPN Bracketology expert Joe Lunardi assesses Xavier, UC, NKU tournament prospects

CINCINNATI -- Xavier’s first four-game skid since 2012-13 has fueled debates about its NCAA tournament prospects, but ESPN Bracketology expert Joe Lunardi is confident the Musketeers remain poised for an at-large bid.

“I don’t think they’re in danger of missing the tournament in any significant way,” Lunardi said Wednesday. 

That’s good news for a Xavier team that has endured a rocky spate with consecutive losses to Villanova, Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall -- the latter three on the road, and two of the four without season scoring leader Trevon Bluiett (ankle sprain).

Xavier struggled in Trevon Bluiett’s absence due to an ankle injury. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Lunardi believes Xavier’s body of work will be rewarded by the Selection Committee when it determines the tournament’s 36 at-large bids. All 68 teams will be revealed Selection Sunday, March 12. 

“When you look at the quality of teams that they’d have to fall behind -- even with their struggles, they can’t be bad enough to be worse than those other teams,” Lunardi said. “We’re talking teams with losing records in their leagues and awful non-conference schedules, like TCU and Kansas State. They just have too many good wins.”

Xavier (18-10, 8-7 Big East) is No. 20 in the latest NCAA Rating Percentage Index with victories over nine opponents in the Top 100, including three in the Top 50. Its best win was on the road at Creighton (21st in the RPI). Its worst loss was on the road at Colorado (109). 

The Musketeers still have home games against Butler (13) and Marquette (71), and a regular-season finale at DePaul (234). It would benefit Xavier to at least go 1-2 in order to post a 9-9 Big East record, but even with losses in all three games, Lunardi thinks the team is “safe, regardless.”

“I just think it’s a matter of impacting their seeding at this point," Lunardi said. "...If they were to lose two out of three and lose in the conference tournament early to a team below them, they’re probably going to be in the 8-9 game.”

Lunardi dropped the Musketeers to an 8-seed in his Thursday Bracketology.

A season-ending knee injury to point guard Edmund Sumner was a tough blow for Xavier. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

It has been in many ways a difficult season for the Musketeers, which lost point guard Edmond Sumner to a season-ending ACL tear that thrust freshman Quentin Goodin into the starting rotation. Veteran guard Myles Davis returned from a suspension only to leave the team shortly thereafter.

Bluiett has been less than 100 percent since spraining his ankle Feb. 1. He re-injured his ankle 10 days later against Villanova and watched the ensuing two games from the bench before returning for Wednesday’s 71-64 loss at Seton Hall. The junior scored a team-second 14 points in 38 minutes. 

Lunardi said Bluiett’s return can help the team from the Selection Committee’s standpoint.

“If he plays and they play well, the committee will note that. I’m not saying they’ll discount the losses but they won’t count as much,” Lunardi said.

Of course, Xavier could take the guesswork out of Selection Sunday by winning the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden and clinching the conference’s automatic bid. That’s easier said than done, as obstacles like defending national champion Villanova lurk along the way.

Ultimately the Musketeers’ best insurance is to win as many games as possible between now and the bracket reveal.

BEARCATS’ OUTLOOK: The University of Cincinnati is a No. 5 seed in Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, in part because of the message the Selection Committee sent in the Feb. 11 early bracket reveal on CBS.

UC (24-3, 13-1 American) was not among the top 16 seeds. 

“Here’s what we know for sure: They didn’t make the top-four seed lines in the bracket reveal the week before last, even though they clearly had the profile of no worse than a No. 4 seed. But the committee chair did mention that they were one of the ones considered for the top four lines, just having missed,” Lunardi said.

“So I have them as a five at the moment based on what the committee already told us and what I think their profile is. I thought they had an upside of a three but I think at this point you’d have to say the committee has kind of sent a signal that maybe their upside is a four.”

Mick Cronin’s UC team sits at a projected No. 5 seed despite a 24-3 record. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Lunardi said there has been a swing in favor of power conference teams that play excessive numbers of Top 50 opponents. UC is 6-2 against Top 100 teams with three wins against the Top 50 (Iowa State, SMU, Xavier) and two sub-50 losses. 

“It’s kind of a bit of a counting exercise of Top 50 teams. It almost doesn’t matter how many Top 50 losses you have. That’s not how I would evaluate it, but that’s not really my job,” Lunardi said.

UC’s remaining regular-season schedule features Memphis (113), UCF (103), Houston (63) and UConn (102). A loss to Memphis would be the worst of the lot because of the Tigers’ RPI and the game location – at UC – so the onus is on the Bearcats to take care of business at Fifth Third Arena. 

NKU’S OUTLOOK: The Norse are eligible for the Division I postseason for the first time since transitioning from Division II. That’s the good news.

The bad: The Horizon League is a one-bid league, meaning only its automatic qualifier will make the field.

For NKU, that’s a long shot. League-leading tourney favorite Valparaiso is penciled in as a 14-seed for now with the assumption that it will be the last team standing at the conference tournament in Detroit.

Second-year coach John Brannen and the Norse (19-10, 10-6 Horizon) have exceeded expectations after going 9-21 last season. There’s a possibility that NKU will play in a different postseason tournament, but only time will tell.

 

 

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