Xavier gets big nonconference win

BY foxsports • February 8, 2011

Xavier coach Chris Mack didn’t read his players the riot act before Tuesday night’s game against Georgia.

“I didn’t need to,” Mack said. “I think our guys are smart enough to know what was at stake.”

The Musketeers had whiffed on the majority — no, make that all — of their key nonconference games. It started with a loss to Old Dominion in the Virgin Islands, continued with a setback at Gonzaga, there was a New Year’s Eve opportunity against Florida, followed by a 20-point thrashing by crosstown rival Cincinnati.

“We knew we had to win,” Xavier star guard Tu Holloway said after Tuesday’s 65-57 victory at Georgia. “This was a big game. There’s a reason we scheduled it in February.”

“We knew the NCAA committee would look at this game like an NCAA tournament game,” backcourt mate Mark Lyons added.

It was the final opportunity for Xavier, a program that has won at least two games in the NCAA tournament in each of the past three seasons, to nail down a résumé-building nonconference victory.

“We didn’t want to put undue pressure on the kids and tell them that they had to win,” Mack said.

Xavier didn’t have to win. But this one could wind up the difference between sweating out March 13, otherwise known as Selection Sunday, and being able to take a breather.

“It’s a strange year,” Mack acknowledged.

That’s because in just about any other year, Xavier’s résumé likely wouldn’t warrant an NCAA tournament berth. But this year is no ordinary year. There will be plenty of teams whose résumés read more like those of NIT teams, but still will wind up dancing.

In addition to the losses to ODU, Gonzaga, Florida and Cincinnati, the Musketeers also lost to Miami (Ohio) and dropped one to Charlotte in league play last week.

But Mack is dead-on. This isn’t the run-of-the-mill season, and as long as Xavier takes care of business in the final seven games of Atlantic 10 play and finishes in the top two spots in the league, it should be able to avoid sleepless nights leading into Selection Sunday.

“We might not be one of the top 25 teams right now, but I know we’re a tournament team,” Holloway said. “We’re 17-6.”

Holloway started slowly again and didn’t get into the scoring column until there was 13:27 remaining in the game, but he managed to finish with a game-high 18 points, including a perfect 11 for 11 from the free-throw line.

It’s a weapon that not many coaches have — and Mack estimates that Holloway, an 87 percent foul shooter this season, has helped Xavier win a handful of games with his clutch shooting from the line.

“There’s no one at the end of the game I’d rather have on the line than Tu,” Mack said.

It’s hard to argue. Ever since he made 10 for 10 from the line against Missouri in the third game of his career, Holloway has been nearly automatic in the waning minutes.

“He’s just a really good player,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “It’s a luxury to be able to give him the ball at the end of the game.”

Mack, in his second season since taking over for Sean Miller, has done an impressive job getting this thin group (he plays just seven players) to contend for another A-10 title.

Brad Redford, the team’s top perimeter shooter, went down with a season-ending torn ACL prior to the start of the season. The most talented freshman, Justin Martin, didn’t qualify academically and is sitting out. Fellow frosh Jay Canty has missed the past dozen games with a stress fracture in his right foot.

But in a down year for traditional non-Power Six powers Gonzaga, Butler and Memphis, the Musketeers have managed to put themselves in position to return to the Big Dance. And it ultimately may be another SEC victory in the heart of A-10 play that proves to be the difference.

Last season, Xavier knocked off Florida in Gainesville; two years ago, it was a 10-point win at LSU; and in 2007-08, it was a rout at Auburn.

“We like it,” Mack smiled. “It’s good for our kids to get a break in the conference. They got excited to play.”

And even more excited when they realized they finally earned that résumé win.


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