By: Tim Wilmes ~Sports Editor~
After a late-season surge of quality wins, the Xavier Musketeers find themselves in a postseason fight for a chance at the Big Dance — the NCAA Tournament — after a disappointing loss at Seton Hall and a hard-fought loss at home to No. 6 Villanova.
And with junior center and captain Matt Stainbrook sidelined until Saturday, it looks like the Musketeers will be in an uphill battle during the Big East Tournament this weekend at Madison Square Garden in New York.
By the Numbers
Will the lack of Stainbrook’s presence in the offense doom the Musketeers? The pundits worried that XU could be sent packing after one game certainly have reason to be worried going into this weekend.
After all, Xavier was 4-6 on the road in the regular season and 1-3 on neutral sites. The poor record away from Cintas Center and the fact that the Musketeers are 0-2 since Stainbrook went down with an MCL strain spells trouble for Xavier.
Further, XU has lost three games in a row twice this season: once in a neutral setting at the Bahamas and once predominantly on the road against Big East teams. Fans worried about the pressure for the team to succeed are certainly hoping that March doesn’t mean an unlucky No. 3 again for the Musketeers.
Xavier’s first matchup in the tournament against Marquette (MU) proves worrisome as well. The last time the two teams met, the Golden Eagles staved off the Musketeers in Milwaukee to bring the season series to 1-1.
The key matchup in the quarterfinal game on Thursday will come between MU center Davante Gardner and the XU Stainbrook-less bigs. Gardner is averaging 15.1 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game and is averaging 17.5 ppg against the Musketeers this year. Marquette has been skillful from behind the arc against Xavier this year as well, making 44.4 percent of 3-pointers taken.
So, there’s the bad news. Although the team will have to battle on every possession in N.Y., there is certainly still hope for the Musketeers.
Though Marquette provides matchup problems for Xavier without Stainbrook and had a late-season surge, the Golden Eagles have lost three games in a row themselves. Granted, two of these games were one point losses, one at Providence and one against St. John’s in double overtime. But the fact still remains that MU hasn’t tasted victory since February. Further, the Golden Eagles post equally bad road numbers, going 4-8 on the road and 1-2 in neutral games.
And although Marquette will be a tough task for Xavier, there could have been an even harder matchup against St. John’s (SJU) playing in front of a home crowd. Luckily, five-seeded SJU is on the other side of the bracket.
The final piece of the puzzle rests on head coach Chris Mack and how he chooses to use his team for the first time in the pressure games of the Big East Tournament.
Though Mack was 3-4 all-time in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, he boasts an impressive 4-3 record in the NCAA Tournament and two Sweet 16 appearances. The latter stat means more here: Mack’s teams never had to win the A-10 Tournament to get into the Big Dance, save for last year, and he has proven the ability to coach in high-pressure games with success.
Ultimately, Xavier’s success in New York depends on two things: will the Musketeers capitalize in key possessions, and how will XU’s guards perform on offense? In big games against Butler, Marquette, Georgetown, Creighton and St. John’s, Xavier has hit big shots and converted scoring opportunities late in the game, something it was unable to do at Marquette and, more recently, against Villanova.
If the Musketeers find themselves behind this weekend, they’ll need to close the gap and stay within striking distance for a chance at a late win.
Further, junior guard Dee Davis and sophomore guard Semaj Christon will be key in New York for their big play ability and what they will have to provide to the Musketeers’ offense for the team to be successful.
After the loss to Villanova, Mack mentioned that often, how Davis plays directly impacts Xavier’s chances of winning. The gritty guard will need to push the ball and create chances for his teammates while also putting up a solid stat line if XU wants a chance at winning.
Meanwhile, Christon has already proven he has what it takes to make clutch shots and carry the team when it is struggling. The First Team All-Big East star is averaging 17 ppg and 4.1 assists per game, but he’ll need to focus his energy even more on providing assists this weekend in Stainbrook’s absence.
It may sound funny, but besides Christon and Davis with 4.9 assists, Stainbrook is the only other player averaging over one assist with 2.3 assists per game.
It seems the ideal situation for Xavier fans would be for the team to defeat Marquette and notch a win over Creighton or Georgetown in the semifinal game to seal a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. If the Musketeers can only sneak by with one win or no wins, their tournament chances might look a little slimmer by potentially being placed in a play-in game.
Regardless of the result, one thing’s for sure: sparks will fly in close games and stars will emerge in big victories this weekend at Madison Square Garden.