CINCINNATI – Two weeks ago, Xavier did not expect to be sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble facing a possible do-or-die win in its Big East Tournament opener Thursday night. And without its starting center.
Welcome to March Madness!
While 13th-ranked Cincinnati, No. 24 Ohio State and unranked Kentucky go into their conference tournaments this week with locks on an NCAA bid, the unranked Musketeers might be sweating bullets if they don't beat Marquette Thursday night in their first Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The bracketologists have mixed opinions on how the NCAA selection committee will view Xavier on Sunday if it goes one-and-out in the Big East.
Joe Lunardi of ESPN has Xavier (20-11) in his bracket as a No. 11 seed, but ESPN also puts the Musketeers in the "Work Left to Do" category, saying:
"They have to beat Marquette in the first round of the Big East tournament -- at least -- to avoid spending Friday, Saturday and Sunday perspiring heavily."
Lunardi's bracket (as of Thursday morning) has:
> UC (4 seed) vs. Manhattan (13) in the Midwest Region in San Antonio, Texas.
> Ohio State (5) vs. Louisiana Tech (12) in the East (Spokane, Wash.).
> Kentucky (7) vs. George Washington (10) in the East (Raleigh, N.C.)
> Xavier (11) vs. Texas (6) in the East (Orlando, Fla.)
Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and others have Xavier on the bubble.
Here's a capsule look at Xavier, UC, Kentucky and Ohio State in their conference tournaments:
XAVIER MUSKETEERS (20-11)
> What: Big East Conference Tournament
> Where: New York. N.Y.
> First Game: Marquette (17-14), 9:30 p.m. Thursday.
> TV: FOX Sports 1
> Outlook: After beating then No. 9 Creighton on March 1, Xavier was sitting pretty. But then the Musketeers lost their last two games to Villanova and Seton Hall and lost 6-10 center Matt Stainbrook to a strained knee ligament in the process.
Beating Marquette without Stainbrook will not be easy.
Xavier split its two games with Marquette in the regular season - winning 86-79 in January at Cintas Center and losing the rematch 81-72 in Milwaukee five weeks later - so competing with Marquette's Davante Gardner and its taller front line will be problematic.
The Musketeers also have to play better defense on Jake Thomas, Marquette's inconsistent three-point shooter, who scored 35 points in the season split by hitting 11-for-21 behind the arc.
Finally, Xavier has to handle the ball better. Marquette scored 27 points off Xavier's 19 turnovers last month.
Marquette also has motivation – the only way it can get to the NCAA Tournament is by winning the Big East.
Coach Chris Mack said Stainbrook could be available for Saturday's finals, if the Musketeers are.
RELATED: BIG EAST BRACKET
CINCINNATI BEARCATS (26-5)
> What: American Athletic Conference Tournament
> Where: Memphis, Tenn.
> First Game: Central Florida (13-17), 7 p.m. Thursday.
> TV: ESPNU
> Outlook: There's not much suspense here with the top five seeds – UC, Louisville, SMU, UConn and Memphis – assured of NCAA berths. But good teams and old rivalries could make for some spirited, intensely competitive games in the last two rounds.
Mick Cronin's Bearcats tied Louisville for the conference championship with 15-3 records and won a coin flip to determine the No. 1 seed.
Central Florida beat the Temple, 94-90, in double overtime in a quarterfinal Wednesday night. Isaiah Sykes had 36 points and nine rebounds for UCF.
Sykes, though, has struggled greatly against UC, totaling 22 points in two losses while making just 7 of 27 from the field.
The Bearcats have already bombed UCF 69-51 on Jan. 23 in Cincinnati and 77-49 on Feb. 19 in Orlando, and there's no reason to think they won't do it again and move on to Friday's semifinals against the UConn-Memphis winner.
UC star Sean Kilpatrick, the conference's leading scorer (20.9), will have a chip on his shoulder after losing the AAC Player of the Year Award to UConn's Shabazz Napier. A UC-UConn matchup, with those two squaring off, would be must-see TV.
A UC-Louisville final - after each team won a nailbiter on the other's court this season - might be even better.
RELATED: AAC BRACKET
KENTUCKY WILDCATS (22-9)
> What: Southeastern Conference Tournament
> Where: Atlanta, Ga.
> First Game: winner of LSU (18-12) vs. Alabama, 7 p.m. Friday.
> TV: ESPN3, SEC Network
> Outlook: The second-seeded Wildcats want another crack against top-ranked and top-seeded Florida after last Saturday's 84-65 trouncing. But they may not make the finals unless coach John Calipari has figured out how to make his talented freshmen play together.
Kentucky, ranked No. 1 when the season started, lost three of its last four games, including an inexplicable 72-67 defeat at South Carolina, and dropped out of the Top 25.
"We've got to get our mojo back," Calipari said. "We've got to come together as a group. Now is the time to do it."
That could be said for everybody except Florida.
When was the last time only two SEC teams had locked up NCAA berths before the conference tournament?
No. 3 seed, Georgia (18-12) , might need to beat Kentucky in a Saturday semifinal to get in.
With so many SEC teams on the bubble – Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri included – it wouldn't be shocking for one of them to get to the finals.
It hurts those three that they are in Florida's half of the bracket. But if the Gators are just coming to Atlanta for a warmup for the Big Dance, one of them might.
RELATED: SEC BRACKET
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (23-8)
> What: Big Ten Conference Tournament
> Where: Indianapolis, Ind.
> First Game: Purdue (15-18), approximately 2:40 p.m. Thursday.
> TV: Big Ten Network
> Outlook: The Buckeyes have won three of the last four Big Ten Tournaments, including last year's, but for coach Thad Matta's team to make a sixth straight title game appearance it will need to do so as a No. 5 seed.
The Buckeyes have had a roller-coaster season, with impressive victories at Wisconsin, at Iowa and over Michigan State offset by two mysterious losses to Penn State. But they're coming off that big win over the Spartans and maybe that will reset them.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves this past week. We’ve gone at our guys in practice,” Matta said.
Ohio State’s defense was seventh-best in the country, allowing 59.1 points per game. But their offense tends to be hit-and-miss-miss-miss, and they make a lot of turnovers. The defense needs to keep their opponents under 70 — the Buckeyes gave up 70 or more points in five games and lost all five.
Purdue has lost six straight, and twice to Ohio State this season, so it won't challenge the Buckeyes. The challenges are expected to come in the second round against No. 4 seed Nebraska (which split with the Buckeyes) and the semifinals against No. 1 seed Michigan.
As up-and-down as the regular season was, it is anybody’s guess who will win the tournament. If it's not Michigan, it could be Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska – even Ohio State.
RELATED: BIG TEN BRACKET
MIAMI REDHAWKS (13-18)
> What: Mid-American Conference Tournament
> Where: Cleveland, Ohio.
> Wrapup: The tournament and the season ended for the RedHawks in a 63-55 second-round loss to Ohio U. Wednesday night. Miami was overmatched but gave the Bobcats (23-10) all they could handle. The RedHawks were within one point with 38 seconds left.
RELATED: MAC BRACKET