This is what March is like. Xavier fans who threw things at televisions, fainted, simultaneously cursed and cheered Jalen Reynolds, or wondered what on earth was happening last night will have the opportunity to do it all again tonight. The Musketeers came into the Big East tournament likely in the big dance and enter the Big East tournament final playing for the chance to greatly improve their seed and avoid the dreaded 8/9 line.
How did we get here?
Villanova 63-61 Providence
The Friars were more than game yesterday and, if not for Ryan Arcidiacono getting the benefit of a dubious call, they might be the team in the final. Providence trailed by four with 17 seconds to go before Kris Dunn scored, Ben Bentil came up with a steal, and Dunn scored again. That was when Bentil was called for a foul on Arcidiacono and the Wildcat point guard knocked in the winning free throws. Villanova wasn't their usual selves from deep last night, making only 7-23. Providence also dominated Nova on the glass, grabbing 12 more rebounds over the course of the game.
Xavier 65-63 Georgetown
Big East fans could be forgiven for thinking that was going to be the most drama they saw all evening, but the second semi-final was even more engrossing. Xavier had beaten Georgetown soundly twice during the regular season and looked on their way to doing it again. With eight minutes remaining, the Musketeers led by 20 and had held the Hoyas to 33 points. In the next eight minutes, Georgetown went on a 30-12 run to nearly wrest the game away. The run started when Jalen Reynolds picked up his obligatory technical for saying something to Jabril Trawick after Trawick feinted throwing a punch. Trawick, the aggressor and only player to be physical, escaped without any sort of sanction and Xavier proceeded to collapse. Making 4-14 of free throws very nearly cost the Musketeers the game, but in the end was just enough for them to win. (Start video below at 1:42 for Xavier coverage).
The first time the two teams me, Coach Chris Mack reacted to a lax effort in a loss to Butler by shaking up his lineup and starting JP Macura and Larry Austin Jr. Villanova stormed to an early lead and never really looked back in an 88-75 win. The second meeting of the teams was decided by nearly the same margin, but played out much differently. Xavier took the lead and held it for 30 minutes, and the Wildcats buried the game. It took longer this time, but the method was the same. Nova rained threes and pulled away late as Xavier dropped another chance.
What does Xavier have left? I was concerned after sealing their bid that Xavier would come out without any fire for the Georgetown game. That wasn't the case, but the last eight minutes of last night's game (and JP Macura's injury) had to have taken their toll on the Musketeers. The team has come out of the gates weak all season and did in both Big East tournament games so far. If they do that tonight, they're runners up.
Can Xavier limit the damage from deep? In the previous two meetings Villanova has lifted a stunning 63 three pointers and made 28 of them for a 44% mark from behind the arc. Ignoring for a moment the gaudy percentage, the amount of threes that the Wildcats have taken is just amazing. They aren't going to quit doing that unless Xavier makes them. Jalen Reynolds, James Farr and Matt Stainbrook will have to be active in closing down shooters left open on rotations or Villanova will get off another 32 threes.
How does this impact seeding? Jerry Palm has Xavier as an eight seed, Joe Lunardi has Xavier as a seven seed, and Chris Dobbertean has Xavier as a six seed. That's basically the possible spread for Xavier right now. Getting off the 8/9 line is vital for the Musketeers. A win tonight does that for sure and could move Xavier all the way onto the six line, which would mean they also avoid a potential meeting with a two seed should they advance. Despite being in for sure, there is a lot to play for tonight.
- Keep Jalen in the game: Xavier was cruising last night when Jalen went out with the technical. After that, the wheels came off in a truly cataclysmic fashion. It's impossible to overstate how big the collapse was after Reynolds left the game. He has to keep his brain engaged and his hands to himself for Xavier to have a chance tonight.
- Feed the Stain Train: Matt Stainbrook has come to play in the Big East tournament, following 13/10/1 against Butler with 20/9/0 last night. With Stainbrook scoring, the offense opens up. Josh Smith couldn't stop him last night, and Daniel Ochefu's aggressive defense will open the passing lanes the big man thrives on.
- Rotate intelligently: Villanova moves the ball until they find a shooter. Xavier falls asleep when teams rotate the ball. These are not things that have worked well in combination for the Musketeers. Xavier's bigs have to move quickly to avoid leaving open any of the four shooters Nova will likely have on the floor at one time. If Hilliard or Pinkston gets a look from the corner, you'll know things have gone wrong.