Xavier's Road to the NCAA Tournament

Will Chaz Williams and UMass keep Xavier from earning a bye in the A-10 tournament? - Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

The whole point of all this basketball teams are playing at this time of year is to set themselves up for a successful March. Xavier has some work in front of them; here's how the remainder of the season breaks down and what X needs to do to put themselves in position for the NCAA tournament.

Xavier came out in the conference like a ball of fire, but three losses in their last four games have the Muskies sitting in a five-way tie for the final all-important bye in the Atlantic Ten tournament. When we looked at their conference schedule a couple of weeks ago, we broke down Xavier's remaining games (12 at that point) into "have to win," "should win," "could win," and "luxury win" categories. Since that time, Xavier is 1-1 in "should win" games, 0-1 in "could win" games, and 0-1 in "luxury wins." All that to say that the current 1-3 run, while not welcome, is certainly not entirely unexpected of a young team playing on the road in the conference.

With eight conference games left and an at-large resume likely tarnished beyond repair, though, Xavier is playing for the automatic bid at this point. With wins over GW and La Salle in hand, Xavier has to outplay the Charlotte and UMass to nip the fourth bye or try to overtake VCU, Butler, and/or Saint Lou to solidify their position in the conference tournament. It's a big ask, but I still think this team has it in them to make a run, especially if Bald Brad Redford et al. start making threes. Here's how I see things shaking out.

Game: at Duquesne 2/9
Previous/current category: Have to win/Have to win
KenPom says: 70-63 W, 74% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: Another road game - this team's fourth out of their last five games - isn't ideal, but Duquesne is really bad this year. Almost as bad as Wofford, in fact. Ignoring that downer for just a second, though, Duquesne is winless in conference, bad at scoring the basketball, and even worse at defense. Xavier needs to handle their business in this one.

Game: Fordham at Cintas 2/13
Previous/current category: Have to win/Have to win
KenPom says: 76-61 W, 91% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: Time to get healthy. Fordham is probably just as bad as Duquesne, but they do have a couple of conference wins to show for their efforts. Still, this is not a team that has the talent to hang with Xavier. A win here should be expected, and Xavier has to take both of these games to make the rest of the conference season matter in relation to the bye. Sitting at 7-3 makes heading back on the road a little more palatable for Xavier fans.

Game: at Dayton 2/16
Previous/current category: Should win/Could win
KenPom says: 67-61 L, 29% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: After the way Xavier performed in their last four games and what it took (i.e., the season's best effort on the glass) to beat Dayton at Cintas, I'm not overly enthusiastic about their chances at UD. Dayton is always a tough place to play, and there's no way UD will let themselves get their masculinity destroyed in front of their fans like they did on the road. Without the curse of Jimmy Carter in play, it's going to take a superlative effort for Xavier to win this one. Still, if X handles their previous two games, a loss here doesn't indicate panic time.

Game: at URI 2/20
Previous/current category: Should win/Have to win
KenPom says: 60-59 W, 55% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: This one I'm going the opposite way on. Xavier's sixth road trip in eight games (I'd like a word with the scheduler, please) will also bring their last chance for a road win in conference until the difficult trek to Butler on the last day of the season. If X can pick this win up and hold serve in their difficult home games, they can get the bye. If they drop this one, it's likely going to take wins over all three of VCU, UMass, and Saint Lou to get to the 10 wins I think they'll need. Even with all three at Cintas, that's a big task.

Game:
VCU at Cintas 2/23
Previous/current category: Luxury win/Luxury win
KenPom says: 67-63 L, 34% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: The Rams have taken a couple of losses recently that demonstrate that they're not invulnerable, but their strengths match up really well (for them) with Xavier's weaknesses. Their defense is physical to the point that it borders on violent and the love to push the pace. It's theoretically possible that Xavier could slow things down and get them off their game, but it's not all that likely.

Game: UMass at Cintas 3/2
Previous/current category: Have to win/have to win
KenPom says: 69-65 W, 66% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: UMass has the talent to play a lot better than they have, but they have really been inconsistent this season. The Minutemen have definitely disappointed thus far, but they're still a threat at Cintas. Xavier's last four conference games are VCU-UMass-Saint Louis-@Butler; this is the one that Xavier definitely has to have.

Game: Saint Louis at Cintas 3/6
Previous/current category: Should win/Could win
KenPom says: 61-59 L, 43% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: The Billikens have been playing inspired basketball this season and currently have a 17-5 (6-2) record to show for it. It is actually their defense, not VCU's, that has been most effective in the conference season, thanks to their ability to force TO and keep their opponents off the glass. Unless Xavier pulls a surprise somewhere earlier in the schedule, they're going to come into this game with a chance to seal a first-round bye if they can beat a tough opponent on the home court. This will be a huge game for the Muskies.

Game: at Butler 3/9
Previous/current category: Luxury win/Luxury win
KenPom says: 67-58 L, 19% chance of any Xavier win
Breakdown: Xavier beat Butler in a non-conference game at Cintas in November, but that seems like it was played 100 years ago at this point. Going to Hinkle to face a team that is playing well and will likely be ranked in the top 15 or so is a whole different beast altogether. It's possible that Xavier could take something out of this game, but it's not terribly likely.

So there it is; Xavier cannot afford to drop the games against Duquesne, Fordham, or URI if they want to skip the first-round of the conference tournament. The home fixture against UMass is almost as pivotal for X. If the Muskies can steal the game at Dayton, that takes a lot of the pressure off of a murderous finish to the conference schedule. Gun to my head, I'm seeing this team finishing with nine conference wins and ruing the missed chances of the Charlotte, St. Joe's, and Richmond games, all of which were within reach at the last media timeout. What do you think? Does Xavier have enough to get to 10 conference wins? If so, does that get them the bye? If not, can they still pinch fourth in the regular season and grab an extra day of rest in Brooklyn?

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