Prep school teammates meet on First Four stage
DAYTON, Ohio – Though it’s essentially a play-in game sending one team home from the NCAA tournament three days before half the field even plays, Tuesday and Wednesday night’s games give the competing teams something other teams don’t get.
The stage to themselves.
N.C. State’s T.J. Warren and Xavier’s Semaj Christon figure to put on a pretty good show in Tuesday’s nightcap.
The former prep school roommates at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire have each excelled as sophomores at their respective home-state progreams. The 6’8 Warren was named ACC Player of the Year by the coaches and the media after averaging 24.8 points per game, leading the ACC in scoring and finishing among the top 10 in rebounds and steals.
Warren is the nation’s third-leading scorer; that he won ACC Player of the Year while playing for a team that barely cracked the tournament over the likes of Duke’s Jabari Parker, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and North Carolina’s Marcus Paige says he was pretty dominant.
"T.J.’s been spectacular," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "I think what I’ve enjoyed the most is watching him mature and grow up. And we forget he’s just a sophomore.
"I think he’s had an All-American-type year, obviously. He’s ACC Player of the Year, and he’s deserved it because I think he’s played at a high level all year long."
Like Warren, Christon was really good as a freshman and has been even better — and much more valuable as an all-around player — in his second college season. His scoring is up two points per game, to 17.2, his shooting percentage is up and his turnovers are down while averaging more than 35 minutes per game.
When Xavier needs a basket, the ball is almost always in Christon’s hands. The smooth 6’3 guard was a unanimous first-team All-Big East pick and took on a captain’s role for Xavier.
"To me he’s one of the best guards in the country in transition," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "He does a great job of getting in the lane. I think he’s extremely hard to keep out of the lane. He makes the right play almost every single time.
"I’d say over the last 15 or so games, he’s won us games at the free-throw line. And he’s not a one-way player. He plays defense. He takes just as much pride on the defensive end as he does the offensive end. He had a huge steal in our Providence win at home against Bryce Cotton that sealed the game. To me he’s one of the best players in the country, and I know he’s anxious to play in this tournament."
A Cincinnati native, Christon didn’t decide he would stay home for college until he’d graduated from Winton Woods High School and opted for a postgrad year at Brewster, where Warren would go on to become a McDonald’s All American. Also on that loaded team were Michigan’s Mitch McGary, Marquette’s Deonte Burton, St. John’s Jakaar Sampson and Xavier forward Jalen Reynolds.
"We had five or six players who could score whenever they wanted to," Christon said of that Brewster team. "We did a lot of winning."
Warren is outscoring everybody but Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Niagara’s Antoine Mason this season. He’s doing it inside and out — "he’s extremely difficult to guard," Mack said — and when his Wolfpack teammates can knock down outside shots to make defenses pay for paying too much attention to Warren, N.C. State can be dangerous.
Christon, by the way, hinted that his current team will be paying plenty of attention to his old friend.
"It won’t just be one-on-one," Christon said. "It will be one-on-five."
Warren praised Christon, too, saying "he’s very athletic, very quick, got a good size for a point guard. He can finish at the rim. He’s a great player, so I’m looking forward to getting out there with him."
The winner moves on the play No. 5 seed Saint Louis in Orlando on Thursday. Xavier didn’t make the tournament last season, while N.C. State returns to the University of Dayton Arena after losing a first-round game to Temple last year.
That was an experienced team on which Warren was a very talented complementary piece. Now, he’s very much his own man — and looms as a very big roadblock for Xavier’s hopes of further postseason action.
"Last year he was a really good freshman player," Gottfried said. "He improved his foul shooting, improved his 3-point shooting. He’s improved his demeanor. He’s matured. He’s also learned how to accept the fact that he needs to play well for us to have a chance, and he knows that.
"And sometimes that comes with maturity. Sometimes, you’re not ready to do that. Like even at the beginning of the year, we came up here and played Cincinnati, I think our second game, and he wasn’t comfortable all the way just yet with that. I think as the season wore on, he began to be more comfortable. So he’s had a terrific year."
Tuesday night, he’ll see familiar faces in what’s at least a somewhat familiar place. And the stakes for all involved will be very high.
"I truly believe this is the greatest show on earth in sports," Gottfried said. "I don’t think there’s anything like the NCAA tournament."