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Xavier v. St. John’s: Big East Tournament Preview

Now begins the stretch of the season where survive and advance becomes more than a cliche.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at St. John Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

How did we get here?

This is Xavier’s opening game at MSG by virtue of being the top seeded team in the Big East. The Musketeers open postseason play on the back of a modest three game winning streak capped by clinching the outright conference title with a win over DePaul. X is probably a one seed in the Big Dance as it stands, but they can’t afford a slip today.

St. John’s, on the other hand, is only going dancing if they copy the Indians in Major League and win the whole dang thing. Last night they overwhelmed a choking Georgetown when the Hoyas blew a 10 point lead. Shamorie Ponds returned from an abdominal strain to score 26 on a very efficient night from the floor and line.

What’s at stake?

For Xavier, probably not a great deal. At the absolute worse, the Musketeers are a two seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. A loss here won’t change that, nor will a win do much to cement the one seed. For as tough as St. John’s has played Xavier this year, they simply don’t have a lot to hang their hat on in terms of resume.

For the Red Storm every game they play now is a win or go home. They may have an NIT reaume hy now, but that’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to excite fans. No major conference team should ever play in the CBI, so it’s win or wonder where it all went wrong time for Chris Mullin’s charges. This is a weird thing to type, but except for an 11 game losing streak, the Red Storm have been at least solid this year, including a current 5-3 streak that includes wins over Duke, Villanova, and Butler. Those 11 games, though, continue to mar the play for Mrs. Lincoln.

Three questions:

How prepared is Xavier? It’s fair to say the Musketeers came out as something less than a ball of fire against DePaul. A championship hangover may have had something to do with that, but X needs to find some intrinsic motivation today, because the Garden at noon on a Thursday isn’t likely to be rocking.

How is Ponds feeling? St. John’s leading man missed two straight before the Georgetown win. An abdominal strain isn’t an easy injury to rehab, and a back to back isn’t likely to help. A cynical coach might post up a Quentin Goodin sized guard and make Ponds defend in the post.

Are you ready? This has nothing to do with the team, but we’ve hit the time of year where Xavier could draw a junior high team and the matchups would worry me. Coach Mack needs to have his guys ready to go while also balancing the fact that this game isn’t the most important one on the slate this month. That high wire act and playing as the favorite require a different mental approach than the Musketeers brought last year.

Three keys

Control dribble penetration. I don't want to shake you up too much, but you should be prepared for the idea that Chris Mullin isn't going to roll out a new offense at this point in the year. The Johnnies are going to throw it to a guard most trips down - usually Ponds or Simon - and ask him to make something happen off the bounce. Stopping teams who rely on small, quick guards hasn't been Xavier's strength this year, but they'll need to do it today.

Be the bullies. Mullin described Xavier as the most physical team in the league on both ends of the floor yesterday. That was during his post game interview, which happened just 15 hours before today's game will tip off. St. John's will probably hit a stride at some point today, but making them fight for every inch in the early going might pay dividends for X late in the game.

Don't let the Johnnies stay in. Xavier held 39-32 leads in both games against St. John's right around the half this year but couldn't stretch out and put either game away. At MSG with the season on the line, there's not much a chance of St. John's fading without a fight, and you'd have to assume a partisan crowd will have the place rocking. It would behoove Xavier to find a way to step on the throat if they get a chance today.