Mack, Xavier look to break A-10 tournament hex

Earning the top seed in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament

and ending up in the NCAAs has been a given for No. 18 Xavier

lately.

Where the Musketeers struggle, though, is winning the conference

title. They haven’t cut down the conference nets since 2006 despite

either winning or sharing the league’s regular-season title the

past five seasons.

The lack of success has not been for a lack of effort. The

Musketeers were eliminated in the semifinals last season in

overtime by Richmond in a game which they could have won had they

made a couple of late free throws.

They also were eliminated in the semifinals in 2009 by Temple

when Dionte Christmas sent them packing with a barrage of NBA-range

3-pointers.

”We want to win, because we want to be known as the best team

in the conference,” coach Chris Mack said Thursday after putting

his team through a light workout at Boardwalk Hall in this casino

resort town.

Xavier (24-6) will kick off two Friday doubleheaders at the

10,000-seat arena when it meets Ohio-rival Dayton (20-12) in the

opening game at noon. The ninth-seeded Flyers, who were beaten

twice by Xavier this season by a total of nine points, knocked off

Massachusetts in the first round on Tuesday.

Fourth-seeded Duquesne (18-11), trying to reach its second final

in the last three years, will face No. 12 Saint Joseph’s (10-21) in

the second game of the afternoon session.

Three-time defending champion and No. 24-ranked Temple (24-6),

the No. 2 seed, will play Philadelphia-rival La Salle (15-17) in

the opening game Friday night. The 10th-seeded Explorers, who lost

two close games to the Owls this season, beat St. Bonaventure in

overtime in the first round.

Third-seeded Richmond (24-7) will face No. 6 Rhode Island in the

Friday finale. The Rams beat Saint Louis on Tuesday.

Xavier has one injury issue this week. Center Kenny Frease, who

averaged 11.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, tweaked his back in practice

on Wednesday and watched Thursday’s workout in sweats. Mack expects

the 7-foot Frease, a matchup problem for many league teams, to be

ready for Friday.

Either way, the team seemed relaxed on Thursday. And why not?

The Musketeers went 15-1 in the league this season, and are the

overwhelming favorite to win this weekend. What’s more, they had a

fun-filled meeting at Dock’s Oyster House on Wednesday night, an

evening that included some singing by the players. In fact, senior

forward Dante Jackson seemed happy with his rendition of some

Stevie Wonder songs.

But he also said that Mack has talked to this team about winning

the conference tournament since the season started. And while the

players know they are going to get an NCAA tournament berth no

matter what happens this weekend, they want more.

”Make no mistake,” Jackson said. ”We are here to win this

tournament.”

The Musketeers come into the tourney on a nine-game winning

streak. They have only lost two games since the start of the year,

one to Cincinnati in a contest for the city’s bragging rights, and

another at Charlotte on Feb. 2, their only conference loss.

Xavier is led by junior guard Tu Holloway, who averaged 20.1

points and 5.5 assists in being named the conference’s player of

the year. Fellow guard Mark Lyons is averaging 13.8 points, while

power forward Jamel McLean averaged 10.8 points and 8.5

rebounds.

Dayton, which won the NIT last season, is led by senior forward

Chris Wright, who averaged 12.9 points and 8.3 rebounds.

For all its recent failures in the Atlantic 10 tournament,

Xavier has been magnificent in the NCAA tournament. It has reached

the round of 16 the past three seasons. The only other Division I

school to also do that is Michigan State.

On the other hand, while Temple has won the last three A10

championships, it has failed to win a game in the NCAA

tournament.

Of course, Temple has clearly had a home-court feel and edge

since the league tourney shifted to Atlantic City. The Philadelphia

school is just 62 miles away from Boardwalk Hall, while Xavier is

631.

”All anybody worries about is March Madness and not the last

three A-10 championships that we won,” Owls forward Lavoy Allen

said. ”Xavier lost in the semifinals the last three years and went

to the Sweet 16. They’re still the best team in the A-10.”