Despite loss, Xavier still on path to NCAA berth

Xavier Musketeers head coach Chris Mack talks to guard Semaj Christon (0) during the second half against the Villanova Wildcats at the Cintas Center. Villanova defeated Xavier 77-70.

Frank Victores/Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Chris Mack isn’t going to make any excuses for his Xavier team. Even though the Musketeers fell to No. 6 Villanova 77-70 Thursday night in their regular season finale, Mack has no doubts that they are worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. That is regardless of what happens next week during the Big East conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"We’re going to finish the year with 20 wins, our strength of schedule right now sits at (No.) 20 and history has shown that any team with a top-20 schedule in the country that finishes with 20 wins is an NCAA tournament team. Period," said Mack.

Xavier has a week off before it will play its first tournament game. It will take a 20-11 record with it to MSG, half of those wins coming in the conference ranked among the top four in the nation RPI-wise depending on which analyst or service you’re looking at or listening to at the moment. They will be either the third or the fourth seed in the tournament depending on the outcome of games this Saturday.

(Note: if Providence loses at Creighton on Saturday, Xavier will be the third seed. If Providence beats Creighton, Xavier will be the fourth seed.)

Villanova earned its first Big East title since 2006 and its first outright league championship since 1982 with the win. The Wildcats are now 27-3, 15-2 in the league. That they are 15-2 is a testament to how well and consistent they’ve played this season in a league that has 10 teams with very little separating them.

The Big East coaches picked Villanova to finish fourth in their preseason poll. The coaches picked Xavier to end up seventh. It’s been a different season for the Big East. This is a reconfigured league with seven holdovers from the old Big East plus newcomers Xavier, Creighton and Butler.

Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Louisville and Cincinnati may no longer be a part of the Big East but the M.O. of the league hasn’t changed. It’s a tough grind from game-to-game.

"We have great respect for this league and to win this league is really a hell of an accomplishment," said Villanova coach Jay Wright.

Xavier got blown out at Villanova, 81-58, when the teams played last month in Philadelphia. The Musketeers went into Thursday’s game without starting center Matt Stainbrook, who is out indefinitely with a MCL sprain, but they never shrank away from Villanova.

Xavier jumped out to 7-0 lead and Villanova didn’t take its first lead until halfway through the first half. There were five lead changes and five tied scores in the first half before Villanova went to the locker room with a 41-36 lead. Xavier never regained the lead but was always pushing the Wildcats. Villanova seemingly had the game put away when it took a 69-57 lead with 1:35 left to play but Dee Davis hit two 3-pointers and Justin Martin made another as the Musketeers eventually cut the lead to three points, 73-70, with 21.1 seconds to play.

It wasn’t to be. Before Davis hit those two 3-pointers, Xavier had missed its first 11 attempts from long range in the second half. Semaj Christon ended the game with 18 points but he actually went more than nine minutes without scoring a point in the second half. That has to be some sort of personal low for a player who has all of the contortions, body control and innate scoring ability that Christon has.

There have been some losses for Xavier this season that leaves you shaking your head. This isn’t one of them. They got beat by a better team on this night.

This loss won’t keep them out of the NCAA tournament. Finishing above .500 in this league should hold a lot of weight to the NCAA selection committee.

"Maybe we (the Big East) haven’t won the PR battle but I do know this," said Mack, "I coached in the A-10 and I coach in the Big East now. I’m telling you right now Georgetown (currently seventh in the Big East) would be a top two or three team in the Atlantic 10 and it’s not even close. Maybe we’re not winning the PR battle but to think that the Big East may only get two teams, and people are trying to put that out there, it’s foolish.

"Look at the strength of schedule. Look at what these teams in the league have done, in the upper echelon, and we’ll go from there."