Russell: Villanova Wildcats still stand in the way of a Xavier Musketeers Big East title

XU No. 2 in RPI heading into conference play

CINCINNATI -- Despite recent injuries, reshuffled lineups and spates of turnovers, Xavier’s men’s basketball team is in great shape heading into Big East play. 

The Musketeers (12-1) are No. 2 in the RPI with the nation’s 16th best strength of schedule. They’ve tied the best start in program history through 13 games, ascended to No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25 -- just one perch off their program-best ranking of No. 5 -- and won seven straight games.

There’s just one thing Xavier hasn’t done since the Big East reconfigured in 2013, and that’s win a regular-season title. Villanova has claimed four straight, plus two league tournament crowns.

Undefeated Villanova continues to occupy the No. 1 slot in the latest national polls. But Xavier has a huge target on its back, too, making Wednesday’s 8:30 p.m. Big East opener at Marquette the start of a whole new gauntlet.

The Musketeers will receive the best shot of the Golden Eagles, and every team thereafter in the 18-game Round Robin league slate.

“We have nothing but the utmost respect for Xavier,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said in Tuesday’s Big East coaches’ teleconference. “We’ve played a few of the best teams in the United States already in Purdue and Wichita State. I think Xavier’s the best team we’ve played thus far.”

Andrew Rowsey and the Marquette Golden Eagles will be the first Big East challenge for Xavier. A win for the Musketeers would be big boost to its NCAA tournament resume. (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

Xavier fell to Marquette last season -- twice. In the first outing, Xavier was six games removed from losing Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury and Trevon Bluiett was out with a sprained ankle. Turnovers and a thin roster took a back seat to the spectacular performance of Marquette guard Markus Howard, who erupted for 34 points behind nine 3-pointers.

The teams met three games later, on senior day at Cintas Center. It was the last XU loss in a six-game skid, and even the return of Bluiett couldn’t stop a Marquette juggernaut that scored 25 points off turnovers.

Marquette finished the season ranked sixth among 10 teams in the Big East standings, proving just how tough a league game can be on a given night. Xavier went 9-9 in the league, finished seventh, and later reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.

Based on the victories Xavier has amassed this season -- a resume that has just one loss, to No. 3 Arizona State on a neutral court -- the Musketeers are winning at the NCAA Selection Committee’s new Quadrant System. The system divides games into four quadrants of value based on location and RPI. There is a greater worth for road wins and neutral court victories.

XU’s best victory to date is at Northern Iowa, a team ranked 32nd in the RPI. That’s a Quadrant 1 win, aka a road victory over a team ranked 1-75 in the RPI. The Musketeers’ win over Cincinnati is Quadrant 2-worthy (home vs. a team ranked 31-75), as was their triumph at Wisconsin (on the road vs. a team ranked 76-135). 

A win at Marquette would qualify for Quadrant 1 territory, as would road victories against every Big East team except Georgetown and DePaul. 

The Big East’s collective non-conference record this season was 100-23 (.813), its best since boasting an 83.1 winning percentage in 1988-89. In addition to Villanova and Xavier, two others -- Seton Hall and Creighton -- are in the AP Top 25.

There will be no rest for the weary.

“It’s a very good league that we’re in,” coach Chris Mack said before Xavier departed for Marquette. “We’re very fortunate. We’re going to have wars every night. Not a lot of time off for us -- we don’t have a bye until about the sixth week of conference play. So here we go.” 

Xavier has a leg up on some of its league mates by virtue of three seniors -- Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Sean O’Mara -- who are accustomed to elite-level competition and know what it takes to win high-stakes games on the road. Hostile opposing crowds often elicit a, well, competitive spirit (see: Macura’s gator chomp at Wisconsin fans).

As the Musketeers hunt for a Big East regular-season title, they have to keep pace with, and overtake, Villanova. Losses to most other league teams won’t blemish their resume but could play a role in postseason seeding.

One game at a time, right? The most clichéd answer actually is the most apt here as a now-healthy Xavier tries to extend its record to 13-1 and deny Marquette a Top 10 win. Each win could will pay dividends for a Musketeers team with big goals in mind. 

“They present problems on both ends of the floor,” Wojciechowski said. “That’s why they’re a team that I think can win a national championship.”

Shannon Russell is a freelance writer who covers Xavier basketball for WCPO.com. Follow her on Twitter @slrussell.

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