Know your team – Xavier Musketeers

Perhaps you’ve heard about Xavier’s bizarre season?

It must feel like three or four seasons in one, but the Musketeers are grateful to have a chance to play in the Second Season. They open the NCAA Tournament Friday night vs. Notre Dame.

It’s a game they can win; probably one they should. But Xavier (21-12) has been maddeningly inconsistent over the last three months and remains a gifted but puzzling team still trying to find its stride. Time is almost up, and life on the NCAA Tournament bubble was stressful, but now the Musketeers are in and got a better draw as a 10 seed than they probably could have imagined.

For seniors Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Andre Walker, it’s now or never.

A team that’s been crushed by expectations and its own missteps comes into the tournament under the radar and playing pretty good basketball. With Holloway running the show and sharpshooter Mark Lyons on the wing, Xavier can score with just about anybody. It’s out to prove it can still play with anybody, too.

Xavier was No. 8 in the national polls, one spot off its highest ranking ever, at the time of its Dec. 10 fight with crosstown rival Cincinnati. Suspensions followed. Bad basketball followed. The Musketeers are tired of talking about it, but they haven’t been the same since.

Holloway was one of the incident’s main instigators. He’s also capable of being one of the nation’s best point guards and comes in averaging 17 points and 5.1 assists per game. Frease is also playing his best basketball at the end of an up and down season and can be a 7-foot game-changer when he’s on his game. Frease is averaging 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds over the last seven games.

Xavier is making its seventh-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and every player in its rotation except freshman Dez Wells has tournament experience. Wells is the kind of athletic, above the rim player who could give Notre Dame fits — and potentially Duke, too. The Musketeers will need to be disciplined against Notre Dame’s patient offense, but Xavier has the athletes to create the kind of pace it wants.

Opponents are shooting just under 40 percent against Xavier for the season and just over 30 percent from the 3-point line, and that’s the type of defense it will take to advance in this tournament. Xavier is at its best when its defense leads to fast break opporunities and chances for Holloway, Lyons and Wells to attack the rim.

Xavier has plenty of big-game experience this year but will need to play more like it did early vs. the likes of Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Purdue and in the first 35 minutes vs. Memphis in February than it did for much of the Atlantic 10 schedule. This is an experienced and talented team that was only going to consider this season a success with an NCAA Tournament run regardless of what happened early, so a renewed focus should help.

We don’t have any idea what to expect from here. From watching all season, absolutely nothing should be a surprise.

Why they can get deep into the bracket: Holloway is truly an elite point guard, and there’s enough talent around him to keep defenses guessing. Big-game experience matters, and Xavier is both built for and has been pointing to this. The Musketeers might be athletic and aggressive enough to give two opponents this weekend fits.

Why they’ll flame out early: You’ve watched, right? They disappear mentally in stretches, go through shooting ruts regularly and haven’t done much of anything consistently well enough to think they can play 40 good minutes on the game’s biggest stage.

Key to their hopes: Frease. He clogs the lane, can be a force on the glass and can be an offensive weapon in a halfcourt game. Lyons making shots and keeping a cool head is a key, too, but if Frease comes to play defenses must adjust — and Holloway and Friends should be able to take advantage.