By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PHILADELPHIA - Just more than one month ago, Xavier University's season might as well have been written off as a startling letdown.
Yet, as the Musketeers enter their 3 p.m. game today at Temple, they are closing out the regular season as a potential NCAA Tournament team that has suffered just one loss since Jan. 31.
Xavier (18-10, 9-6 Atlantic 10) has won eight of its last nine games and is one of the hottest A-10 teams other than unbeaten Saint Joseph's. The Musketeers are still a few wins away from an NCAA at-large bid, but Xavier is in far better position than the XU team that was 10-9 after losing five of six to end January.
"It's very satisfying," senior guard Lionel Chalmers said. "Especially since in the beginning the story was David West wasn't here, I don't know how good they are. Nobody was believing in us. We struggled early, but we turned it around, and things are clicking well for us. It's great to prove people wrong and to do good."
XU has been playing a month's worth of must-win games to remain in NCAA contention, faltering only once, against Duquesne Feb. 28.
"I think they have a better sense of what it takes to win now," Xavier coach Thad Matta said. "I'm proud of the way they've responded to that."
How much of a setback that Duquesne loss was won't be known until Selection Sunday, March 14, but a win against Temple (15-11, 9-6 A-10) today is a likely requirement to stay on the NCAA bubble.
Xavier has not won at Temple since Jan. 31, 1998. Last season, Xavier defeated Temple by 31 points in the final regular-season game at Cintas Center only to lose to the Owls six days later in the A-10 Tournament semifinals.
"We're not even looking at that game last year," senior center Anthony Myles said. "It's just another game that we have to try to come home with a win."
Like Xavier, Temple has won eight of its last nine, including a 98-92 double-overtime win against Massachusetts Wednesday. Senior guard David Hawkins scored 41 points in that game. He averages 24.3 points per game, first in the A-10.
The Owls have already secured the East Division No. 2 seed and first-round bye for the A-10 Tournament next week. Xavier, on the other hand, could finish anywhere from second to fourth in the West.
Xavier's ratings percentage index, No. 53 according to CollegeRPI.com, is 28 spots better than it was at the end of January. The last month of winning has provided Xavier's scholarship seniors, Romain Sato. Chalmers and Myles, a more enjoyable way to end their collegiate careers.
"I think its better to finish up strong than to start strong and slack off," Chalmers said. "It's great to go undefeated and go 27-0 like Saint Joe's. But it's more fun, and it's more like the college game and college excitement when you've got to win a game when you know both teams are going at each other for a seed in the (NCAA) tournament."
Xavier at Temple
Tipoff: 3 p.m. today, Liacouras Center (10,206), Philadelphia.
Records: Xavier 18-10 (9-6 Atlantic 10), Temple 15-11 (9-6).
Radio: WKRC-AM (550).
Series: Temple leads 7-6.
Coach: Thad Matta (70-22, third season; 94-30 overall).
Coach: John Chaney (483-221, 22nd season; 708-280 overall).
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