'Huge weight' lifted with Xavier's tourney bid
Prior to this season Xavier fully expected to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. What it didn't anticipate was the detour it would take en route to a seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Musketeers also didn't expect to be sweating out the selection process after beginning the season 8-0 and ranked in the top 10 in both major polls. But the team hit a rough patch and the result Sunday was more in question than had been anticipated.
But two victories in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, a strong computer standing, and a solid non-conference schedule was enough to help XU reach the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in 12 seasons.
"A huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders," said XU coach Chris Mack. "They didn't want to be the guys who broke the streak of, now seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Hopefully we'll play our best basketball."
Xavier (21-12) will play No. 7 seed Notre Dame (22-11) on March 16 in Greensboro. XU is 3-15 all-time versus Notre Dame, including an 83-71 loss to the Irish in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament. In that game XU was a No. 11 seed facing sixth-seed Notre Dame. Xavier is facing a member of the Big Easton Conference in the first round for the second straight season, losing in the first round to Marquette last year. "We'll have our hands full," said Mack of Notre Dame.
It's been a roller-coaster ride for Xavier this season. In the aftermath of the December brawl with crosstown rival Cincinnati the Musketeers fell apart, losing five of six in one stretch and not performing well when it needed to most, in key games against Gonzaga, Memphis, Temple and Saint Louis.
Tu Holloway has, at times, barely resembled the player who garnered Player of the Year consideration in the preseason. Xavier's defensive effort has been inconsistent, and its senior leadership has been questioned.
But it's a new season for Xavier, and the pressure is off. During the A-10 tournament, the Musketeers began to look more like themselves. Now they're back in the NCAA Tournament in an underdog role that was once familiar to them before they reeled off three straight Sweet Sixteen appearances and a pair of Elite Eights.
This could make the Musketeers a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament, if they can somehow regain their November swagger.
Grateful Musketeers earn 7th straight NCAA bid
--Xavier is making its seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, one of only 12 schools to accomplish that. But the Musketeers, who have reached 10 of the past 11 NCAA Tournaments, feel fortunate to be in this year's "Big Dance." This might be Xavier's chance to salvage what largely has been a disappointing season. Whether this makes the Musketeers hungrier than their potential opponents remains to be seen.
--Xavier earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, its lowest since being a No. 14 seed in 2006 and losing to Gonzaga in the first round. The Musketeers have been no worse than a No. 6 seed the past four seasons. XU was a No. 6 seed when it lost to Marquette in last year's first round.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're a program that's been there so many times. But you can't have a sense of entitlement when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. It's hard to get in. We are very fortunate. Being a part of March Madness is what you shoot for from the start of the year." -- Xavier coach Chris Mack on the Musketeers' seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING REPORT: Senior G Tu Holloway was on just about everyone's Player of the Year preseason watch list. Holloway's stardom reached its peak when he helped spark come-from-behind victories over Vanderbilt and Purdue. But in the fallout from the brawl with Cincinnati, for which Holloway received a one-game suspension, things changed for Holloway and Xavier.
Holloway remains the Musketeers' unabashed star, but there have been times the past couple months that he has seemed content being more of a point guard and distributor than a pure scorer. Junior G Mark Lyons brings intensity, and freshman Dezmine Wells has dazzled with his high-flying dunks. But the Musketeers' escape from the NCAA bubble can largely be attributed to the emergence of 7-foot senior C Kenny Frease, who averaged 10.1 points and 4.6 boards in the Atlantic 10 tournament.
FUTURES WATCH: Rumors that junior G Mark Lyons might transfer are unsubstantiated, but with a strong recruiting class incoming there could be some defections among some Xavier players who expect decreased playing time. The Musketeers' recruiting class for next year has been ranked in the top 20 by some outlets. Guards Semaj Christon and Myles Davis, and forwards James Farr and Jalen Reynolds could contribute immediately.
REGULAR SEASON REVIEW: Xavier began the season 8-0 and ranked in the top 10 in both major polls. But an ugly brawl with 9.4 seconds remaining in a 76-53 win over crosstown rival Cincinnati sent the Musketeers' season into a tailspin. Four players were suspended for their roles in the fight and Xavier lost five of its next six games. Despite missing key opportunities for quality wins over Gonzaga, Memphis and Temple, the Musketeers managed to advance to the Atlantic 10 Conference finals. That run, coupled with a strong non-conference schedule and computer rating, was enough to earn them a seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
--Senior C Kenny Frease has emerged of late. Frease averaged 10.1 points and 4.6 rebounds in three Atlantic 10 tournament games. He had 18 points and 12 rebounds in the victory over Charlotte in the regular-season finale. After a stellar junior year, Frease has had a disappointing senior season. But his presence in the post could be a factor in the NCAA Tournament.
--For all of the controversy and adversity surrounding Tu Holloway this season, Xavier's senior guard still wields some star power. He became the fall-guy for the brawl with Cincinnati, and the public scrutiny affected his play. But Holloway has shown recent signs that he's returning to the caliber of play that earned him preseason All-American consideration. Holloway was named to the Atlantic 10 Conference first team. Holloway leads Xavier with 17 points and 5.12 assists per game.
--Junior G Mark Lyons is Xavier's emotional engine, although some might argue his emotions often get the best of him. But Lyons, who averages 15.5 points and 2.7 assists per game and was named to the A-10's third team, ignites the Musketeers on offense and defense with his aggressive style.