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The Blessing, and Curse, of the Big East

Xavier has the chance to get the wins they need to make the tournament, they also have the chance to get buried.

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Xavier
Playing teams like Georgetown means you have a chance beat teams like Georgetown...but that isn’t easy.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The Run. It lives in Xavier lore as the story of a team that started poorly, found something, and stormed to the Elite Eight. The Musketeers of that year are always held up as the example of what a team from Xavier can do when they get things going. Once the Musketeers get rolling, there’s always the chance they roll right to the second weekend of the tournament. The proof is right there in the past.

That team deserves absolutely 100% of the attention that is lavished on it, but the landscape has changed for Xavier now. When Lionel Chalmers, Romain Sato, and Anthony Myles needed to get right after a 2-5 start in the Atlantic 10 they did so by feasting on the soft underbelly of the 10th best conference in the nation. Xavier hadn’t even been good before conference play, dropping games to Mississippi State, Iowa State, Indiana, and, somehow, Ball State.

They got better though, and fast. They did it by racking up three wins against sub-250 teams, another two against teams in the 180s, and only three against teams ranked above 50th. Even as things weren’t going well, the Musketeers had plenty of chances to get things sorted out against the dregs of DI college basketball. There simply weren’t that many huge games on the schedule. It became a question of quantity over quality, and X delivered the quantity in the regular season before that incredible tournament run over #19, #14, and #17.

This year’s squad has an entirely different proposition to deal with. They were also in the throes of instinctive drowning response early in conference season. Unlike the Atlantic 10, the Big East only gets deeper. In one sense, that is a blessing for Xavier. The Musketeers don’t have a great non-conference slate to bolster them (the 2004 team crushed #29 Alabama and also beat UC), but they have a ton of great chances left in conference play. The very worst team (St. John’s at #79) left on Xavier’s conference schedule would have been the fourth best they played in regular season play during the run.

And it isn’t just a string of solid opponents coming up, Xavier has some chances for elite level wins. Home against Villanova, at Seton Hall, both Butler games, home against Marquette, and at Creighton all have the potential to be quadrant one games. Win half of those and suddenly your bubble argument is much, much better. Providence and St. John’s at home are the only quadrant three games left. Everything else is a Q2. The wins are there for the taking.

And that is also the curse of the Big East. The 2004 team could do something like post barely a point per game in a game with only 59 possessions and still come away with a win because they were playing the 254th best team in the nation in St. Bonaventure. That would be like this year’s squad getting a crack at East Carolina, a team that no serious conference would consider adding. The Musketeers won’t be playing the Pirates, though, at least not Pirates hailing from warmer waters.

That means that a couple bad games and Xavier is done. Getting buried doesn’t take long with a stretch like at Creighton, home to Marquette, at Seton Hall coming up. There’s also a stretch coming up with three games in ten days with two of those games being at Butler and then Villanova at home. Briefly founder and the Big East will destroy you without even a moment to pause and realize what is happening.

The Run lingers in the memory in its rightful idealized place. This season that kind of thing won’t happen, but Xavier will have a great many chances to play themselves into the tournament. With each of those, though, comes the chance to get obliterated. Such is life in the Big East with 50 days to go until Selection Sunday.

For more discussion of the bubble and the Big East, have a listen to the Dispatches.