The cool thing about conference basketball season is that every team starts out with its fate in its own hands. Simply win all your games and you’re the conference champion. No splitting, no dispute, no nothing.
Getting from the start of the season to the stretch run still in control of your outcome is another thing entirely, but that’s what Xavier has accomplished. The ten-team Big East is down to a two-horse race for the league title. Xavier (10-2 in conference play) and Villanova (9-2) are the only teams remaining with a realistic shot at a conference championship, whether outright or shared.
The stretch run for both teams is more about avoiding losses than compiling wins. Those are obviously functionally the same thing, but a loss for either team is going to do way more for its opponent’s chances than a win will.
So can Xavier pull it off? There are three main reasons to think that they can.
Nova’s (lack of) depth is finally catching up to them
The Wildcats have been getting fewer than 30% of their minutes off the bench, ranking them near 300th in the nation. That hasn’t been a problem for much of the season, as their six-man rotation has been mowing through opponents with little trouble for three months. They aren’t anymore, thanks first to Phil Booth breaking his hand and now Eric Paschall being out with a concussion.
Nova is getting back freshman Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels from broken hands of their own, and they’re taking disappointingly little time to get back up to speed. Paschall is out for at least a week (according to Coach Jay Wright) and Booth is expected back sometime in early March at the earliest. The thin bench means Nova is just foul trouble or one 2-11 night from deep from Jalen Brunson away from being primed for an upset.
Nova’s schedule is potentially trickier than Xavier’s
First of all, Villanova has seven chances for losses left and Xavier only has six. That in and of itself favors the Muskies. Of the remaining games, Xavier has only two that KenPom considers A-level matchups while Nova has twice that many. On the other hand, Nova has two games that Pomeroy basically considers walkovers, hosting DePaul (98% win prob) and Georgetown (97%).
Of course, KenPom gave Villanova a 97% chance beat St. John’s last night, so weird things can happen.
After the Creighton game this weekend, Xavier only has to go on the road to face DePaul and Georgetown. The Hoyas gave X a scare at Cintas, but those road trips are preferable to Nova’s four road games against Providence, Creighton, Seton Hall, and...
Xavier; Nova still has to visit Cintas
The return leg to the Cintas Center is Xavier’s trump card on the run in. There isn’t any way around the nature of a double round robin; whichever team executes better down the stretch in conference is going to win the league title, and X has a huge leg up by being able to host the rematch. The Muskies are 15-0 at home this year, including 5 wins over KenPom’s top 50.
You don’t win a conference like the Big East without earning it, and - barring a tragic stumble - Xavier is going to have a chance to set themselves up to do just that on February 17th. Everyone but Georgetown, DePaul, and St. John’s technically has a mathematical chance to take at least a share of the title, but realistically speaking, it will be decided on the floor at Cintas two Saturdays from now.