John Popovich previews play-in game at Dayton.
Xavier's shot at making a run in the tournament is a question mark, but it should be a fun ride, regardless.
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Xavier University falls to the Creighton Blue Jays in the Big East Tournament (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
In a word: No.
It could be a fun ride, regardless.
Xavier has never played in the NCAA tournament so close to home (the next closest was in 2007 when they drew Lexington, Ky., beating BYU but falling to Ohio State on some last-second controversy), and you can bet that the Musketeer faithful will be out in force at the University of Dayton when they take on North Carolina State in the 12th-seed play-in game, or the “First Round” as the NCAA selection committee is calling it these days.
This is essentially a home game for XU, and you have to expect that adrenaline and encouragement alone can will them to victory.
NC State is no joke, with wins over Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Tennessee, and narrow losses to North Carolina and Syracuse a separate time, but their consistency remains in question, much like the Xavier squad it is set to face-off against.
The Wolfpack rely on one spark for their scoring in the form of 6-foot-8-inch sophomore forward T.J. Warren, who averages 24.8 points per game on a .525 field goal percentage and 7.2 rebounds per game.
The rest of the NC State squad isn’t much to write home about.
Where Xavier has the upper-hand is their defense-first play that breaks apart only when challenged by multiple talented shooters (such as with teams like Creighton and Villanova). The match up bodes well against a team shooting just .303 from 3-point range and .459 from the field, not to mention the Wolfpack seemingly gave all they had to get past Syracuse, only to fall to a talented Duke team in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
Lacking defensive fortitude, and few skilled rebounders or pure shooters, NC State has its holes when Warren has even a mediocre game. If Xavier can keep him to his averages or below, a win is within reach.
If the Musketeers can get by the play-in game, the next round greets them with former Atlantic 10 rivals St. Louis University. Mid-way through the season, the Billikens were on track to land a 3 or even a 2 seed with their lock-down defensive play and efficient offensive basketball.
But the team has slowed down, their offense has all but disappeared, and despite bursts of greatness from guard Jordair Jett a few times per game, they have relied on a grind-it-out style to pick up ugly wins in the closing month of the season (they have lost four of their last five, all against teams they should have handled).
Xavier has a chance to pick up a second tournament win if they play smart, paced basketball. The Billikens are a half court team, and if the Muskies can get out and run in transition, using Miles and Dee Davis from the perimeter and the size of Matt Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds down low, their defense matches with St. Louis well to give them a chance to win a low-scoring affair.
This will be a game for Semaj Christon to break out, with length over the other Billikens guards, and if his last game against SLU was any indication (20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists), he can carry Xavier through a team that hit a rough patch at the wrong time of the season.
That’s likely about as far as it goes for this year’s Cintas kids. Louisville would be the expected next opponent, and there are just too many talented, athletic and smart basketball players on the Cardinals squad to see Xavier through to the next round. They would be out-gunned and out-run, unable to keep up with the 8th best offense in the country (82.1 points per game).
Louisville’s only losses this year have come to ranked opponents, including Cincinnati, and their No. 4 seed for the tournament is misleading to this No. 5 overall ranked team on the AP Top 25 at the close of the regular season.
Even a Third Round appearance is something to show for what was thought to be a disappointing year early on when Xavier dropped three in a row in the Bahamas, but with a highly ranked recruiting class coming in added to the prospect of some talented returning players next year, another chance at a deep tournament run isn’t far off.
Then again, the best part about the NCAA Tournament is the hope it instills into fans of every team, whether you’re No. 16 Coastal Carolina and just happy to be in the tournament for the first time in its history or No. 2 Michigan hoping to make it out of the “Group of Death.”
The farthest a 12-seed has ever made it in the NCAA Tournament was in 2002 when Missouri made it to the Elite Eight.
Watch closely, XU fans. It’s called Madness for a reason.
For now, enjoy it; each shining moment at a time.
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