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On the road to March success?

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Xavier is 8-2 right now and getting ready to enter Big East play in the next couple of weeks, have they set themselves up for success come March?

Is Coach Mack already prepping for March?
Is Coach Mack already prepping for March?
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

At what point is an NCAA tournament team so far on the way that it cannot be derailed? There's almost certainly a point where even the worst of losses (say Robert Morris beating UK) could keep a top ranked team from still making the tournament, and making it as a high seed. Long strings of bad losses are much less likely in top conferences like the Big East, and, if not likely, certainly more possible in a conference where Tulane, ECU, and UCF are looming near the end of the schedule.

We haven't come anywhere near that point yet, but it's possible to make some projections based on past Xavier teams and where they have been in late December. Xavier has made the tournament in 2014 and 2006-2012. To attempt something of a projection of how Xavier looks for a tournament spot right now, it's useful to look back at how those teams were faring at this point in the season. The current iteration of the Musketeers is sitting 27th in the KenPom rankings as Christmas approaches. How does that compare?

Year Mid-Dec KenPom Record after Final KenPom Conference Rank Result
2006 5-2 15-9 67 9 14 seed
2007 7-2 18-7 35 12 8 seed
2008 8-2 22-5 18 8 3 seed
2009 9-2 18-7 20 9 4 seed
2010 6-3 20-6 17 7 6 seed
2011 67 17-6 39 9 6 seed
2012 18 15-12 48 6 10 seed
2013 79 10-11 77 9 -
2014 55 11-10 59 5 Play in
2015 27 - - 4 ?


The first thing that jumps out is that KenPom didn't have data as far back as I would have liked. The second thing is that the conference takes a big jump up in the last two years. The third immediately available data point is that this Xavier team is one of the better ones the Musketeers have had in mid-December recently.

Looking into things a bit more it's possible to see that a fast finish matters. Two recent Musketeers squads have closed poorly and both of them failed to see the field of 64. On the other end of the spectrum, a fast start will also pave the way to almost guaranteed success. Those are the seasons we want to look at a bit more closely.

2008, 2009, and 2012 are the best starts on the table, and 2007 most likely represents a data profile close to that of this team. The 2008 team was dominating and had faced a more difficult schedule than this year's team has. The 2009 team started even hotter and had played a truly brutal schedule in storming to that start. Both of those teams were simply good all year. That leaves 2007 and 2012 as most likely the closest comps to what KenPom calls the 2015 team.

In 2007 Xavier was playing in a genuinely terrible conference that was not going to provide any sort of a bump. Sure enough, it didn't. Duquesne (213), Richmond (277), and La Salle (235) were all featured in the stretch run. The 7-2 start featured wins over the 52nd and 21st ranked teams, a bad loss to 144th ranked UC, and a handful of cupcake wins. That adds up to slightly better wins, slightly worse losses, and a far worse conference than this year. All things being equal, the 2015 squad sits in a better position than the one that landed the 2007 team an eight seed.

In 2012 Xavier was 18th in the KenPom heading into Christmas break. They then promptly kicked off the holiday tournament jinx by going 1-2 with losses to a decent LBSU and a terrible Hawaii. Prior to that they had three top 30 wins and some cupcakes, as well as a loss to #99 Oral Roberts. Their wins were considerably better (Vanderbilt was #12 at the time) and their loss was very comparable to this year's setbacks. That 2012 team was in better shape in mid December than this one is, and ended with a 10 seed.

So what does this tell us? For one, the 2012 team was well on the way to being excellent, but collapsed instead. They had limited conference chances to recover from a 1-5 stretch that came after an 8-0 start, and they never truly did. 2007 stands out as a very comp to the team this year, and that team made the tournament comfortably before Greg Oden cheated them out of it. Neither the 2012 or 2007 squads had the chance to add multiple really good wins in conference while also not having to worry about a destructive loss. This year the team needs only to avoid losing to DePaul and rely on everything else to boost the rating. It's still early, but Xavier is already in good shape for Mar