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The Morning Dish – Sunday, March 22, 2015

March 22, 2015 The Morning Dish No Comments

When it comes to the very best teams in March, the current list starts with names like Arizona. Duke. Kentucky. Michigan State.

It’s high time another school was added to that elite hierarchy in the sport.

Xavier is back in the Sweet 16-again. This time, it’s after a 75-67 win over Georgia State on Saturday, as the Musketeers shot an incredible 67.6% for the game, including 81.3% (13 of 16) in the second half. It took that kind of effort to knock out the Panthers and R.J. Hunter-who almost certainly made himself some serious money with his performance this week-but X is on to the regional semifinals and now will face Arizona.

Xavier will make it to at least the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in eight years, and the sixth time in 12 years. The Musketeers have two trips to the Elite Eight and a 15-9 record in the tourney in that time, and have qualified for the NCAA tourney 13 times in the last 15 years.

Xavier is currently keeping some mighty company in March. Since 2008, only six schools have an equal or better record of making the Sweet 16 since 2008. The names? Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina. (Duke and Wisconsin can join the list tomorrow with wins)

Connecticut has less trips that deep in the tourney the last eight years. Florida has less. Ohio State has less. Syracuse has less. So do more than 300 other NCAA Division I schools.

After a flame-out in a First Four game last year and an uneven regular season, the Musketeers were not an easy team to trust coming into this year’s tourney. In the first week of this season, Xavier was one of the most impressive teams we saw. Playing solid-if not brand name-competition like Stephen F. Austin, Murray State and Long Beach State at home, the Musketeers averaged 90 points per game and won by an average of 25.3 points per game in a red-hot 4-0 start.

The rest of the season seemed to bear out that the start was perhaps the product of a team being really comfortable at home, as X was just 14-12 over its next 26 games. Xavier got to the Big East tourney final to lock up its tourney bid, though, and in the NCAA Tournament the Musketeers have looked more like that team in November, getting up the floor quickly in the first round win over Mississippi and shooting lights-out on Saturday.

Over the past 30 years, no school has made more gradual progress from an unknown in the middle of Division I to becoming a consistent national player. Gonzaga’s rise was more sudden and splashy, while the Musketeers’ has been a process, but no less remarkable.

When it first started becoming a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament in the 1980s, it was the school still referred to nationally as Xavier (Ohio), in deference to Xavier in Louisiana. Xavier was a member of the Horizon League-two name changes ago, when it was the Midwestern Cities Conference and, later, Midwestern Collegiate Conference.

The Musketeers first started making noise with an NCAA tourney upset of Missouri in 1987, a national ranking in 1988, a close loss to eventual champion Michigan in 1989 and another national ranking plus their first Sweet 16 appearance in 1990. There were plenty more tourney bids, a move to the Atlantic 10, more Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances, and most recently the move to the Big East.

Really, there’s only one more step for the Musketeers to take: their first Final Four berth. It won’t be easy this year in a region that includes Arizona and Wisconsin. Get there, though, and there will be no excuse left anymore to not include Xavier among the sport’s very elite.

NCAA Tournament Round Up:

East Region

  • How quickly teams’ fortunes turn in the NCAA Tournament. Two nights earlier, Villanova was shooting 63% in its first round win, while N.C. State was down 16 in the second half against LSU, looking entirely like the team that lost to Clemson, Wake Forest and Boston College this year and was drilled by Duke by 24 in the ACC Tournament. Two nights later, the Wildcats shot 31% and the Wolfpac was owning the glass in a 71-68 win over the top seed, looking like the team that beat Duke, Louisville and North Carolina. Aside from the result, it’s unfortunate that we did not get to see the best of some really good Villanova teams the last two years in the tourney. The Wildcats are much better than they showed Saturday, but unfortunately their NCAA Tournament legacy right now is as a highly seeded team that couldn’t do much with their seeds.

South Region

  • Utah is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, when Andrew Bogut was playing and Ray Giacoletti was the coach. The Utes defeated Georgetown 75-64, overcoming the Hoyas’ hot start by shooting 57.9%. Five Utah players scored between 10 and 14 points.
  • Also in the regional semifinals is UCLA. The Bruins continued to take advantage of their good fortune in this year’s tourney, pulling away from UAB for a 92-75 win. For those who want offense, they got it here, as UCLA shot 60.3% and the Blazers made 12 three-pointers, easily their season high. UAB was never really a threat in this one with sieve-like defense, not really guarding inside (52 UCLA points in the paint), outside (Bruins made 5 of 9 from three-point range, and one of those misses was by a reserve in the final seconds), against the dribble (Bryce Alford repeatedly getting in the lane easily) or on the boards (41-26 UCLA rebounding advantage, including more offensive rebounds-15-than the Blazers had defensively-14).

Midwest Region

  • Kentucky is moving on after a 64-51 win over Cincinnati. It wasn’t really pretty or easy to watch-UK shot 37%, UC 31.7%-but once again, the Wildcats take care of the business they need to. Aaron Harrison had 13 points. The Wildcats’ 36-0 start is now the longest undefeated start to a season in D-I history.
  • Notre Dame advanced with a 67-64 overtime win over Butler. The Bulldogs had a three shots to take the lead at the end of regulation but couldn’t capitalize, and the Irish had a pair of big three-pointers late in overtime to take control. Steve Vasturia had 20 for Notre Dame, while Kellen Dunham was just 2 of 13 for eight points for Butler. Sad news after the game, as it was announced after the game that ND coach Mike Brey’s mother passed away on Saturday before the game.

West Region

  • Arizona pulled away in the second half for a 73-58 win over Ohio State. Like so many games in this year’s tournament, rebounding was crucial, and the Wildcats had a huge 41-23 bulge on the glass. T.J. McConnell and Gabe York scored 19 each, while D’Angelo Russell was limited to nine points.
  • One might’ve guessed North Carolina and Arkansas would put up a lot of points, and they did in a UNC 87-78 win. Turnovers: the Razorbacks committed 21 of them.

Side Dishes:

  • Miami (Fla.) is in the quarterfinals of the NIT after a 73-66 win over Alabama. The Hurricanes will play either Richmond or Arizona State for the right to go to New York City.
  • The CIT had four games on Saturday, and the road teams won all four. Canisius surprisingly blowing out Bowling Green on the road 82-59, and even though one doesn’t always know what they’ll get with the CIT, this is still a stunning result. Tennessee-Martin continued the improbable run by the OVC (now 6-1 in postseason tournament games), defeating South Carolina Upstate 60-49. Coach Bob Marlin and Louisiana-Lafayette defeated his former school Sam Houston State 71-70, while a Big Sky duel had Northern Arizona defeated Sacramento State 78-73.
  • Saturday featured some coaching news. Mississippi State has fired Rick Ray after three seasons at the school, making this the 18th school to have a coaching vacancy this offseason. At least 15 of those are the result of coaches being fired or resigning under pressure. Not a single one of them yet has been for a coach to leave for a better job, but the next time you hear anyone bellyaching about coaches who do so, just remember Rick Ray’s name and try to understand why they might leave. Again: this is the climate the schools have chosen to create.
  • Reports are that Illinois-Chicago is set to hire former Wyoming head coach and current Indiana assistant Steve McClain as its next coach. It sounds like a good move. McClain was 157-115 while coaching Wyoming from 1998-2007 and often had entertaining teams.

Today’s Menu: The last eight second round (or Round of 32) games in the NCAA Tournament

  • The East is busy, with Michigan State against Virginia, Oklahoma taking on Dayton and Louisville squaring off with Northern Iowa.
  • The South sees the 1 and 2 seeds looking to move on, as Duke takes on San Diego State (can was say “hosts” when a team is playing so close to home against a team from across the country?) and Gonzaga plays Iowa.
  • The Midwest has two highly anticipated matchups. Wichita State at last gets another shot at state rival Kansas, while regular football rivals West Virginia and Maryland meet.
  • The final second round game in the West has top seed Wisconsin against Oregon.

Enjoy your Sunday.

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