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The Morning Dish – Wednesday, February 7, 2018

February 7, 2018 The Morning Dish No Comments

For a variety of reasons, Xavier has flown under a lot of radars this year – especially for a team ranked as high in the polls as they have been. They gave the latest reminder when they went on the road to Butler on Tuesday night, knocking off the Bulldogs 98-93 in overtime.

It is also a bit ironic that we should talk about them after beating Butler. While we know about The Butler Way, Xavier has had something of their own in recent years.

It starts with head coach Chris Mack, who continues a great run in Cincinnati this year. The Musketeers have some minor growing pains early in their Big East days, but they have consistently advanced in the conference tournament since joining the conference. Now in his ninth year at the helm of his alma mater, Mack was an assistant at the school the five prior years under Sean Miller, and was also there and at Wake Forest under the late Skip Prosser. In other words, Mack is a Xavier guy through and through, surely a big reason he hasn’t really entertained other jobs.

From this, Mack knows the principles of the program, especially at the defensive end. He hasn’t strayed much from what he knows, and considering the success the program has had, it makes sense. And while the Musketeers are allowing opponents to shoot 42 percent from the field and out-rebound them by seven per game, they are really shining at the offensive end. They shoot 50 percent from the field, going over 59 percent on Tuesday night.

What’s also noteworthy about this team is that they have picked up right where they left off at the end of last season. It would have been easy to leave them for dead with their February struggles, which came after Edmond Sumner was lost for the season due to injury. They won their next three, but they lost the next six. They beat DePaul to end the regular season at 9-9 in the Big East, then beat the Blue Demons in the opening round of the Big East Tournament, which at that point meant their last three wins came against DePaul.

As a result, they entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed, the worst seed they have had since 2006 when they were a No. 14. They were pretty much an after-thought, but went on a run to the Elite Eight by beating Maryland, blasting Florida State and then edging Arizona. Gonzaga handled them to reach the Final Four, but this was a run no one outside the Musketeer locker room saw coming. Trevon Bluiett reminded everyone that he was once a highly-touted recruit and has had a nice career, averaging over 21 points in the NCAA Tournament.

This year, they haven’t been after-thoughts at all from a performance standpoint, though their success has been overshadowed in much of the conversation by Villanova’s continued winning ways, as well as stories like Duke’s defense and Trae Young. They roared through their non-conference schedule, losing only to Arizona State in Las Vegas, and thus far, the only Big East losses have been at Villanova and at Providence – no shame in losing there. If they finish strong, they could get into the conversation for a No. 1 seed, and the stage is set for that. Of their remaining games, the toughest road game is at Creighton, as they have Seton Hall, Villanova and Providence all at home.

The showdown with Villanova a week from Saturday could be epic. It could also put the Musketeers back on some radars after being overshadowed all year long by so many other stories.


Side Dishes

In a forthcoming podcast, Ted Sarandis and I talk about Tennessee edging Kentucky 61-59 at Rupp Arena, giving the Volunteers their first season sweep of Kentucky in 19 years. That wasn’t all in the SEC on the night, though. Mississippi State got a big win, knocking off Alabama 67-63, while Missouri beat Ole Miss 75-69 in Oxford and Arkansas beat South Carolina 81-65, which snaps a two-game losing streak and extends the Gamecocks’ current skid to four games.

Kansas got a good battle from TCU, but held off the Horned Frogs 71-64 to stay on top in the Big 12, though Texas Tech is trying to keep pace with them. The surprise of the night came in Stillwater, where Baylor came in and knocked off the Cowboys 67-56, which puts both teams at 4-7 in Big 12 play.

The Big Ten had a little of everything. There was the expected – Nebraska beating Minnesota, even in Minneapolis, 91-85 to go to 9-4 in the Big Ten. There was the expected in unexpected fashion – Michigan State needing to hold off Iowa 96-93. And there was the unexpected, which was Northwestern beating Michigan 61-52 to even their Big Ten mark at 6-6 and keep hope alive that they might have a run in them to be NCAA Tournament-worthy in the year after finally making it.

Another subject on the podcast is teams undefeated in their conference, and two teams in that category kept it going on Tuesday night. Cincinnati manhandled UCF 77-40 to go to 11-0 in the American Athletic Conference, while Penn handled Princeton 82-65 on the road to go to 6-0 in the Ivy League.

Boise State came back to beat New Mexico 73-71, avoiding a bad loss, but that’s not the story. As the Lobos missed a shot in the final seconds and Marcus Dickinson got the rebound as time expired, Joe Furstinger fouled him hard, which led to a big shoving match. The Lobos may have caught the biggest break of all, as replays showed time had expired before the whistle blew for the foul, which means all of the Lobos who left the bench avoided ejections that may have had consequences for the next game. Even so, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Furstinger receives disciplinary action from the Mountain West office, and possibly other players involved in the post-game melee.

As UConn has struggled to an 11-12 overall record, including a 4-6 mark in the American Athletic Conference, and in a year after their first losing season in about three decades, there have surely been some who have wondered about how safe Kevin Ollie is there even with a recent national championship in hand. Any doubts about that were put to rest when athletic director David Benedict met with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, as he not only said they will cooperate with the NCAA’s ongoing investigation but said Ollie will be evaluated after the season. That is usually code for a coach being on borrowed time. The Huskies have gone from being a Big East powerhouse to being about the fourth or fifth-best program in The American, and Benedict noted that there have been some financial challenges as well. One man’s opinion is that Ollie is a tremendous representative of the university and a terrific coach, but at a program that is now in no man’s land as they have no natural rivals in their conference and nothing else that is a significant draw.

Kentucky has suspended forward Tai Wynyard from all basketball activities for a violation of team rules. The 6’10” sophomore from New Zealand has already missed the past ten games due to a disk issue in his back, which will likely end his season.

Georgia Tech assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie resigned on Tuesday as an NCAA investigation in which he is a key figure drags on. A graduate of the school, LaBarrie hosted a recruit a year ago, and the NCAA is investigating what happened, during which time he has been on administrative leave. He said in a statement he is resigning to take away a distraction the team has had to deal with.

James Madison has postponed their men’s basketball games this weekend amid worries about a mumps outbreak within the program. The Dukes were slated to host UNCW on Thursday and travel to Elon for a Saturday matchup, but one coach was diagnosed with mumps and a few other suspected cases of it had also arisen. Work on rescheduling the games is in progress, and the school is working with the CAA and upcoming opponents so as to take appropriate precautionary measures.


Tonight’s Menu

Another busy night is ahead, with a few key games in a couple of conferences early on.

  • SEC action gets going early with LSU visiting Florida (6:30 p.m.), then Georgia goes to Vanderbilt needing a win to get back on track (8:30 p.m.) and Texas A&M visits Auburn in an intriguing matchup (9 p.m.)
  • In ACC action, Virginia tries to remain undefeated in conference play as they go to Florida State at the same time Wake Forest visits Miami (7 p.m.), while Virginia Tech hosts NC State later (9 p.m.)
  • St. John’s will try for their first Big East win again, this time at Villanova (7 p.m.), while Marquette visits Seton Hall in need of a big win (7 p.m.)
  • A key game in the Big 12 is on tap as Texas hosts Kansas State in a battle of .500 teams in conference play (8 p.m.), while Texas Tech tries to stay on a roll as they host Iowa State (9 p.m.)
  • A first place showdown is on tap in the Big Ten as Purdue hosts Ohio State (8:30 p.m.)
  • Cross-town rivals meet in Atlantic 10 action as VCU visits Richmond (9 p.m.)
  • In-state rivals in the Mountain West meet as UNLV visits Nevada (11 p.m.)
  • Colorado tries to get to .500 in Pac-12 play as they host Cal (11 p.m.)

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