Going into the day exactly a month ago, both Xavier and Creighton appeared to be dead in the water. The Muskies were 3-8 in the Big East and the only team keeping 4-7 Creighton out of the cellar. X had dropped 6 straight; Creighton had won just 3 of their last 10.
Perhaps predictably, the game was an unsightly affair, with Xavier scoring well under a point per possession and somehow winning.
Since then, no two teams in the league have been hotter. That win was the start of a 6-1 surge for Xavier, and Creighton ripped off 5 of 6 to close their own season.
The jetsam of the league a month ago, these two teams finished tied for third. Tomorrow, they'll face each other in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
Both teams have put themselves back into position to make a run for an at-large bid. Both will feel like they need to win this game to even stand a chance of hearing their names called.
Both teams have turned their seasons around by cranking up the defensive intensity, albeit in different ways.
Xavier has really clamped down in the half court. They have a top-25 level of defensive EFG% and top-50 DReb% during their recent run. Most importantly, they've stopped fouling almost entirely.
Their defensive free throw rate of 17.8% is staggeringly elite; it's as far ahead of first place over the whole season as first is 25th. Xavier doesn't play offense efficiently enough to win without extra chances to score, and they've achieved that by cleaning the glass after forcing misses and getting a lot more attempts at the free throw line.
Creighton has also been picking up extra possessions, but they've been doing it the old-fashioned way: turnovers. Their EFG% defense over the last month would be 233rd over the course of the whole season; their DReb% would be 143rd. If you can get a shot against them, it has a good chance of falling. If it doesn't, you may well get it back.
Getting the shot, though, has been the thing. Their defensive turnover rate would be easily in the top 25 for the whole season, which is obviously a concern for Xavier. They've also done it without fouling much, with a defensive free throw rate that would put them in the top 10.
There's a lot of talk this time of year about getting hot at the right time. While it's probably better to just be really good, both of these teams have cranked it up down the stretch. It's a cruel quirk that the Big East tournament has pitted its two hottest teams against each other in the first round. Whoever comes out of this one will feel like they'll be cutting down the nets. The loser will probably head to the NIT at best. So it goes in March.