1. So just how good is Xavier? Good, but not great or unbeatable. The record is an impressive 24-8, and going 14-2 in a very good A-10 this year is nothing to be ignored, but that shouldn't be looked at as a sign of invincibility in any way. Although the Musketeers played a very good out-of-conference schedule, they missed out on almost every opportunity to grab a big win. They lost to Marquette, Baylor, Kansas State, Butler, and Wake Forest, with their best wins coming over Florida and Cincinnati. Their record against the other NCAA teams from the A-10 was just 1-2 and they lost by 25 against Dayton. They won't beat themselves (there isn't a bad loss in the bunch) so he Gophers won' be able to stumble into a victory, but if they play as well as they can this game is eminently winnable.
2. That twin towers thing the Gophers have going on, will that work again? Not only could it work, but it might have to. Xavier has some serious size on the inside; 6-9, 265lb. Jason Love, 7-0, 265lb. Kenny Frease, and 6-8, 235lb. Jamel McLean all play at least 17 minutes a game, shoot better than 50%, and Love and McLean average around a triple-double per game each. If you go ahead and add in the fact that Xavier is one of the best team's in the country at defending the three-pointer (opponents shoot just 29% from three against them), and it's clear that Ralph, Colton, or both are going to have to have a big game if the Gophers are going to advance.
3. Who are the key players for the Musketeers? Point guard Terrell Holloway and swingman Jordan Crawford. Holloway is quick as all hell and is one of those kind of guards who seem like they are just a hair short of completely out of control, but this year he's managed to nearly double his points (to 11.8 per game) and assists (to 3.9) while leaving his turnovers at a comfortable 1.9, and has become a truly dangerous lead guard, and a great closer at the end of games with his 85% free throw shooting. Crawford, formerly of the Hoosiers, is the the team's leading scorer at 19.7 per, and has turned himself into a hell of an all-around player. He's hit double-figures in all but one game this season, and that was the fourth game of the year. He's tough to handle at 6-4 because he can get to the rim and can hit the three - he's a very, very good player (and a member of my fantasy team this year). If anybody in this game from either side could single-handedly carry their team to victory, it's Crawford.
4. Anything else we need to know? Pace. Speed, and Pace. Xavier plays a quick, uptempo game and ranked 38th in tempo, while the Gophers play far slower, ranking 205th. I think the Gopher number is deflated a bit by playing in such a slow conference overall, but they're never going to be confused for Tarkanian's UNLV teams. They can really push because of their athletes, and especially because of Holloway and his back-up, Mark Lyons. They are both incredibly quick, incredibly fast with or without the ball, and generally make good decisions (particularly Holloway). In fact, PM Thor from the Xavier message board I became a member of this offseason thanks to my incredibly accurate A-10 preview wants us to know,
"Xs guards are going to run you ragged. Get ready to run from end to end."We've all seen games where the Gophers seemingly refuse to get back, and refuse to play anything resembling transition defense. If that happens against the Musketeers, this could get very ugly, very quickly.
5. So who wins? Make no mistake, this Xavier team is very, very good. Don't relax because they're A-10, don't relax because, outside of Jordan Crawford, you may not recognize any names, don't relax because they are just a six seed and don't relax because the Gophers played so well against Michigan State and Purdue - this is a good team that is probably underseeded by a spot or two. That being said, they aren't invincible either, and the Gophers have looked so, so good in the past month save for a couple games, and this game will probably come down to the very end. I also think both teams are better than Pitt, and whoever wins here ends up advancing to the Sweet 16, minimum. My head gives a slight edge to X, but my heart says otherwise:
Minnesota 66, Xavier 65.
There are three important things to remember here:
1. This should be a great game.
2. In general, the Musketeer fanbase seems like a bunch of pretty good guys, at least in my limited experience.
3. Whoever wins, at least those assholes from Dayton are stuck in the NIT.