Russell: Top 10 clash awaits Xavier, Baylor

There are big non-conference games, and then there’s Saturday’s Top 10 outing between No. 7 Xavier and No. 9 Baylor in Texas.

That game, with its pedigreed programs and ESPN2 audience, has a chance to be epic.

When the Musketeers (7-0) and Bears (7-0) play at 3:30 p.m. at the Ferrell Center, one team will absorb a season-first loss. The elite-level showdown could be especially sweet for Xavier, which has an opportunity to claim a resume-bolstering victory while snapping Baylor’s streak of 38 straight non-conference home wins.

Needless to say, the Musketeers recognize their first true road game is big with a capital B.

“We’re very excited to finally get to play a road game against a great team. A Top 10 match-up, so it should be a great game,” point guard Edmond Sumner said.

Scott Drew’s Bears rallied from deficits in three games to win the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas and will pose challenges with their length, athleticism and 1-1-3 zone. They have the No. 2 shot-blocker in the country in 7-foot forward Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., who swats away 4.1 balls per game when he’s not grabbing a team-high 8.4 rebounds.

They also have Johnathan Motley, a 6-10 forward averaging 16.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, and Ishmail Wainwright, a 6-5 guard kicking in 6.6 points and six boards.

“We’re going to have to find the soft spots in the zone and we’re going to have to make some shots, obviously, and then we’ve got to try to rebound and get second opportunities through our effort on the glass,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “Baylor makes it tough. They’re big. They put that 7-footer under the rim and they’ve got size at every position.”

The Bears possess a dangerous cocktail of high-level rebounding, defending without fouling and rim protection. The keys for Xavier are to have its best rebounding game while remaining fearless in its attack and distributing the ball for optimal looks, all while sticking to its defensive principles.

While the XU’s rebounding margin (+10.4) looks impressive on paper, the team hasn’t faced a foe with the length or athleticism to make conditions overly difficult on the glass. Baylor has a +6.6 rebounding margin and will contest every board.

“Blocking out for the guards (is a key to the game),” Sumner said. “We’re going to have to help defend the post because Tre (Bluiett) plays the four, so there’s going to be a lot of switches on ball screens. I might end up on their big and…J.P. (Macura), so we have to do a great job of defending the post.”

Baylor’s robust bench options provide additional support, and the Bear’s fan base will do its part in rooting its team to a strong start. The last time Xavier played Baylor, in the 2012 NCAA tournament, the Bears raced to a 20-4 lead.

Despite pulling within three points late in the outing at the Georgia Dome, the Musketeers never overtook the Bears down the stretch in a 75-70 loss.

Adversity was a lesson Mack discussed with the team before leaving for Texas. The biggest deficit XU has faced thus far is 10 points, twice, against Missouri in Florida. Bluiett delivered back-to-back scores that launched a 12-2 run late in the first half and Xavier never trailed by more than seven in the rest of its overtime victory.

It’s not realistic to think that everything will “go your way” in a game versus a Top 10 opponent in their building, Mack said.

“They’re going to go on a 10-0 run or they’re going to start off and you’re going to get down 16-2. And being able to make sure we can take care of the ball and make good decisions and get good shots on offense, being us on the defensive end and not having any mental breakdowns where a guy gets a wide open shot – just be yourself,” Mack said.

“And whether we’re on the Cintas floor or down in Waco, Texas, we have to be ourselves.”

Baylor is 0-6 in Top 10 match-ups since 2011-12, while Xavier won three Top 10 match-ups last season against Villanova, Butler and Providence.

Twenty-five scouts from 22 NBA teams have requested credentials for Saturday’s game.

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