NEW YORK – With an NCAA bid all but secured, the Xavier Musketeers should be able to focus now on trying to win their first Big East tournament. And with third-ranked Villanova gone, the road to the title must look easier now for all of the semifinalists.
But the Musketeers will be going from the bubble into the fire Friday night when they face Creighton's scoring machine and Player of the Year favorite, Doug McDermott (9:30 p.m. FOX Sports 1).
The bracketogolists aren't saying the Musketeers (21-11) are a lock, but it figures that Xavier won an NCAA Tournament bid with its 68-65 victory over Marquette in the first round Thursday night.
ESPN put Xavier in the "Should Be In" category Friday, short of "Lock," saying:
"Xavier's two losses to Seton Hall look a little bit better now, eh? (referring to Seton Hall's shocking upset of third-ranked Villanova.) Not that it should matter. Xavier's win over Marquette in Thursday's Big East quarterfinal matchup -- Xavier's first, as the No. 3-seed -- should keep the Musketeers out ahead of the bubble mix just enough to feel relatively safe on Sunday. They have wins over Cincinnati (on a neutral floor) and Creighton, and are now 21-11 and 11-8 against the Big East. They also have another high-upside, low-risk shot at the Bluejays on Friday. They should be OK either way."
On his updated bracket, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Xavier as a No. 11 seed playing Virginia Commonwealth (6) in the East Region at Raleigh, N.C.
Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com still has Xavier on the bubble but he moved the Musketeers onto his bracket Friday.
And look at this:
Palm has Xavier (11) playing Kentucky (6) in the West Region at San Diego, Calif.
Thursday's win capped a season-long mission for the Musketeers, who missed the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2005. They might have had to sit home again if they had lost to Marquette.
"Every time we play a game from day one, from game one up until tonight, we always wrote the four letters in the top right of the white board that said 'NCAA' because deep down that's been a goal of these guys," coach Chris Mack said after the game.
"We weren't there a year ago. Justin (Martin) and Dee (Davis) got to experience it as freshmen. Semaj (Christon) has yet to be in one, and that's a goal we had all year long.
"They knew what was at stake, and I'm glad we battled for it."
Now, if they can beat the 14th-ranked Bluejays (25-6), the Musketeers would lock up that NCAA berth and a spot in the Big East finals against Seton Hall or Providence on Saturday.
Although Xavier lost twice to Seton Hall and split with Providence during the regular season, most Musketeers followers would like their chances.
But first there's the matter of defending the 6-8 McDermott, the nation's leading scorer (26.8), and McDermott has never been hotter than over his past two games.
McDermott scored a career-high 45 in the regular-season finale and had 27 first-half points on his way to 35 in Creighton's first-round Big East win over DePaul. He shot 66.0 percent in those two games - including 12 for 17 from beyond the arc.
"I was just feeling in the rhythm, in the zone," McDermott said after the DePaul game. "I just happened to get going, and my teammates recognized that I had the hot hand."
Reporters asked Mack how Xavier would defend McDermott and then laughed at the coach's answer.
"We just shut him down. We don't let him catch the ball or shoot a three," Mack said facetiously.
"I mean you just try your best, play as hard as you can.," Mack went on. "You try to deny his catches. You try to load to the ball. You try to contest his shots. And when you swallow a couple threes, you can't think it's the end of the world.
"He scored 3,000 points for a reason, but we beat him one time, we lost to him one time. In both games he had 20-plus points. We've just got to play their five, not their one, and do as good of a job on the defensive end as we can."
Xavier and Creighton split the regular-season series, with each team winning on its home floor. McDermott scored 30 when the Bluejays won 95-89 in Omaha in mid-January and 27 when Xavier won 75-69 at the Cintas Center on March 1.
McDermott could have used some help from his teammates in the loss to Xavier. No other Creighton player reached double digits.
Austin Chatman was held to two points, going 1 for 9 from the field. The junior guard has bounced back in three games since, averaging 12 points on 14 of 22 shooting (5 of 9 from 3-point range).
With 3,046 career points, McDermott is seventh on the all-time NCAA scoring list. He passed University of Cincinnati legend Oscar Robertson (2,973) two games ago.
(In fairness to the Big O, McDermott has played 141 games to Robertson's 88).
McDermott is not going to break the NCAA record set by LSU's Pete Maravich (3,667), but he could challenge Portland State's Freeman Williams (3,249) for second place with two more Big East tourney games and a run into the NCAA Elite Eight.
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With an NCAA
bid on the line, Xavier brought out 6-10 center Matt Stainbrook to seal the deal against Marquette.
Mack had said Stainbrook wouldn't be available until Saturday's finals after Stainbrook strained the ACL in his left knee on March 3. But the doctor cleared him to play and he responded with eight points in 15 minutes.
How much Stainbrook will play against Creighton is uncertain.
“I'm not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes,” Mack said. “He hasn't practiced. He's never been around. He's been in the training room.
"We're going to use him as much as we could without overusing him."
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