Tuesday, March 9, 2004

It's now or never for XU

No room for error as A-10 Tourney starts

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's four games in four days, but for Xavier University, the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament might as well be the entire season.

That is the type of impact the tournament and a potential second-round matchup with No. 1 and 27-0 Saint Joseph's could have on Xavier (19-10). The Musketeers open the tournament Wednesday in Dayton against St. Bonaventure (7-20), but in all likelihood, they'll need a quarterfinal win against Saint Joseph's to solidify an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Top-seeded Saint Joseph's faces the winner of the Xavier-St. Bonaventure game at noon Thursday.

"That'd be huge for us," sophomore Dedrick Finn said. "It probably would get us into the (NCAA) Tournament, plus to knock off a No. 1 team, undefeated, and ruin their hopes of that. That'd be great. We're happy to maybe get that shot, but we've got to go through St. Bonaventure first."

Despite winning nine of its last 10 games, XU is firmly on the NCAA bubble because there are so many teams competing for a few bids. At No. 52 in the Ratings Percentage Index according to CollegeRPI.com, Xavier could use a high-profile win against Saint Joseph's for a late notoriety push, much like Washington received after ending Stanford's undefeated run Saturday.

The Musketeers' 2-5 start to the A-10 season, which left them in last place in the West Division at the end of January, is still likely hurting the team's NCAA Tourney hopes. That stretch included an 81-73 home loss to Saint Joseph's. Despite closing the regular season with a 9-1 record in its last 10 games, Xavier still enters the A-10 Tournament as the No. 4 seed in the West because of its January letdown.

"We have a chance to play well against St. Bonaventure and hopefully move on to Saint Joe's, which would be a great opportunity," senior guard Lionel Chalmers said. "They see what we're capable of doing. Right now, I don't know that there's too many teams that would like to play us. But it's part of the game. We started out slow, and we're paying for it now."

In fact, Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli has said multiple times recently that Xavier could be one of the most dangerous teams in the conference tournament. The Musketeers led SJU by one point with three minutes to play in the teams' first game before Saint Joseph's went on to win.

"If we get another shot at them, I think we have a chance," Finn said. "I want it bad. I've been thinking about it since we lost, but you can't overlook St. Bonaventure."

That's exactly what Xavier coach Thad Matta is emphasizing to his players, who will hear and read about a possible game against Saint Joseph's for the next two days. Matta does not want them to forget that Xavier struggled for a half at St. Bonaventure Feb. 25 before winning 65-49.

"Our guys have great respect for St. Bonaventure and what they're capable of doing," Matta said. "We've got to be a heck of a lot better than what we were up there, or we'll be home Wednesday afternoon."


E-mail ddow@enquirer.com

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