Xavier confident, comfortable heading to NYC for Big East tourney

Center Matt Stainbrook and the Xavier Musketeers hope to celebrate in the Big Apple.  

Steven Branscombe/Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Spor

Big Pharm could’ve sponsored Xavier this basketball season and been a big hit. The roller coaster ride the Musketeers have been on could have used some timely medication.

The anxiety level seems to have leveled off, however, as Xavier begins Big East tournament play Thursday at 9:30 p.m. ET against Butler in New York City. Xavier finished off its regular season with a critical road win at Creighton, surviving a comeback bid and last-second shot attempt by the Blue Jays for a 74-73 win in Omaha last Saturday, and enters the league tournament as the No. 6 seed with a 19-12 record.

All Big East tournament games will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (and streamed on FOX Sports GO).

Most NCAA tournament prognostications have Xavier comfortably in the bracket. Head coach Chris Mack is comfortable in his belief that the Musketeers, who haven’t won or lost more than two games in a row since early December, have done what they’ve needed to do up to this point in the season to earn a ninth NCAA berth in 10 seasons.

Now, the Musketeers can just go play ball at Madison Square Garden.

"There’s no doubt we’re a tournament team," said Mack. "Our conference RPI speaks for itself. We’ve done our job, but our job isn’t complete in the sense that we want to win some games in Madison Square Garden. That’s what we’re aiming to do."

The Big East is ranked No. 2 behind the Big 12 in conference RPI.

Xavier has won 20 games in eight of the last nine seasons, coinciding with its streak of NCAA tournament berths, and 16 times in the last 18 seasons.

BIG EAST TOURNAMENT COVERAGE

The last time Xavier won 20 games through its regular season and conference tournament and didn’t play in the NCAA tournament was 2000 when it got an invite to the NIT with a 20-11 record. Xavier has appeared in the NCAA tournament 24 times, including 12 of the last 14 seasons. Only twice — in 1961 and 1987 — did it enter the Big Dance without 20 wins.

So it would seem that 20 wins is a magic number for the Musketeers.

"It’s hard, especially the league we play in but we don’t worry about milestones in the season," said Mack. "We really don’t. We’ll look back on our season when it’s complete and recount the highs, lows and what we set out to accomplish and what we actually did. But it certainly beats having 10 wins."

Butler, ranked No. 22 in this week’s USA Today Coaches’ poll, has gone 22-9 and earned the third seed in the Big East tournament with a 12-6 record. The Musketeers and Bulldogs split their regular season games, with each winning at home. Butler broke open a tight game in the final 10 minutes of the first matchup in Indianapolis on Jan. 10 for an 88-76 win. Xavier never trailed when it hosted the Bulldogs on Feb. 21, leading by as many as 29 points before settling for a 73-56 win.

Butler didn’t have sophomore forward Andrew Chrabascz in the second game because of a broken hand, a factor that Xavier exploited fully. Chrabascz scored 19 points in 24 minutes and helped the Bulldogs own a 37-26 advantage in rebounding in their win at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Xavier had a 39-34 rebounding edge in the second game at the Cintas Center as forwards Jalen Reynolds and James Farr each had 11.

"It’s tough because he’s a non-traditional center," said Xavier senior center Matt Stainbrook. "It’s tough to guard him and chase him around. He can shoot. That’s not his go-to — he doesn’t want to shoot threes first but he can definitely knock them down. I think this time around we’ll have a better game plan."

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WHAT: Big East conference tournament

WHERE: Madison Square Garden, New York City

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Saturday, 8 p.m.

TOP SEED: Villanova (29-2) won the regular season title with a 16-2 record. The Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in this week’s USA Today Coaches’ poll.

XU PATH TO TITLE: No. 6 seed Xavier (19-12, 9-9) opens the tournament vs. No. 3 seed Butler (22-9, 12-6) on Thursday night in the final quarterfinal of the day. Tip-off will be at approximately 9:30 p.m. Second-seeded Georgetown (20-9, 12-6) is possible semi-final opponent for the winner, if the Hoyas can get past the winner of No. 7 DePaul vs. No. 9 Creighton. The good news for Xavier? Top seed Villanova and host St. John’s are on the opposite side of the bracket. Xavier was 0-4 against those two teams but swept Georgetown and split with Butler in the regular season.

KEY PLAYER FOR XU: Forward Jalen Reynolds. The sophomore has progressed well this season, especially in the last 10 games. He is averaging 9.5 points and 6.7 rebounds this season but over the past 10 games he’s averaging 11.7 points and 7.5 rebounds. His combination of size (6-foot-10, 232 pounds) and athleticism make him a tough matchup for opponents.

TEAM TO WATCH IN TOURNAMENT: St. John’s. The Red Storm (21-10, 10-8) are the No. 5 seed and were playing as well as anyone in the league, winning seven of eight games, before running into Villanova last Saturday in Philadelphia. Still, the hosts are capable of running off three straight wins this weekend, starting against No. 4 seed Providence.

PLAYER TO WATCH IN TOURNAMENT: Villanova senior guard Darrun Hilliard led the balanced Wildcats in scoring (14.2 ppg). He doesn’t always need to be at the top of his offensive game for Villanova to win but when he is they’re just all that much tougher to beat.