Friday, March 19, 2004

For Muskies and Cardinals, first
game may be fierce one



By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Romain Sato
Romain Sato(front) is in his fourth Tournament, and will help younger Muskies like freshman Brandon Cole (33).
(Craig Ruttle/The Cincinnati Enquirer)
ORLANDO, Fla. - In the NCAA Tournament, where competitive, last-second games become "instant classics," No. 7 seed Xavier and 10th-seeded Louisville in the Atlanta Regional could provide one of the more intriguing first-round matchups.

Having won 13 of its last 14 games, Xavier (23-10) can be listed among the hottest teams in the country entering today's 9:50 tipoff tonight at T.D. Waterhouse Centre.

Yet the Musketeers are 2-point underdogs to the Cardinals (20-9), who are 4-8 in their last 12 games.

Why? Because despite having a worse seeding, Louisville has a coach with national championship experience in Rick Pitino, who has restored the Cardinals' image as a national program. Louisville was ranked as high as No. 4 this season before faltering in the last month, in part because of injuries to key players who now are healthy.

"We're not really worried about that," Xavier sophomore Dedrick Finn said. "There's been a lot of teams that have been favored over us, and we put an end to that."

No. 7 Xavier vs. No. 10 Louisville

Tipoff: Approx 9:50 p.m. today, Orlando, Fla.

Radio: WLW-AM (700).

WCPO video

That's a point that Louisville is well aware of after watching Xavier knock off previously unbeaten and No. 1 Saint Joseph's last week in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Louisville point guard Taquan Dean said Xavier was such a difficult team to prepare for that he didn't realize the Cardinals were favored.

"That's a tough first-round-game," Dean said. "They're playing great basketball. It's not one of those games where we're the favorite."

At this point, who's the favorite and which team has the better seed are inconsequential, both sides conceded Thursday.

Xavier coach Thad Matta said fear of losing and having the season end overrides any sense of being picked to win. Pitino said unless it's a No. 1 or No. 2 seed playing in a first-round game, the talent disparity is minimal.

What Xavier is aware of, however, is the fact that it is going up against a program that has won two NCAA Tournament titles, in 1980 and 1986, and has been to seven Final Fours.

Xavier has never been past the Sweet 16.

"You look at the last 25 years, there's no question Louisville has been one of the top 10 programs in the country," Matta said. "Only being an hour and 40 minutes apart, our guys have a great understanding of Louisville basketball."

Xavier players say that record does not intimidate them, but they respect it. The fact that two of the Musketeers' three seniors, Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato, are making their fourth straight NCAA appearance gives Xavier some perspective on what it takes to win first-round games.

The third senior, Anthony Myles, who is in his second NCAA Tournament in as many years, said the second-half success Xavier has had this season instills the Musketeers with even more confidence when they see that they're not favored as a No. 7 seed.

"We're playing Louisville," Myles said. "Everybody's got us counted out. There's so much motivation coming from everywhere."

Matta doesn't want his players looking back on their recent accomplishments, however, and think they deserve to be favored against a team like Louisville, which has one of the most versatile players in the country in Francisco Garcia.

"I really don't want our guys to be confident," Matta said. "I want them to be confident in our system as opposed to confident in our play. I want them to know the reason why we won it and how we won as opposed to sitting back and celebrating."

E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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