It's Time for Xavier to Go to the Final Four

CBS pays the NCAA $560 million every year to televise the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which is one of those few, real time, Tivo-proof events still out there for advertisers. The cost of br

Jerry Dowling

CBS pays the NCAA $560 million every year to televise the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which is one of those few, real time, Tivo-proof events still out there for advertisers. The cost of bread and circuses keeps reaching past the stars.

Every now and again, though, the chance for a meaningful tournament presents itself. Anyone can love a fast and colorful athletic entertainment but only a deeply disgruntled fan could love a tournament that shoves a sideways corncob into the suits who've made the college game so easy to ignore for all but the final month.

Do the Xavier Musketeers have what it takes to make that statement?

The true story of this tournament, locally and nationally, however one wants to turn it over and shake it, is the kids from Victory Parkway. Ordinarily, we look at Xavier going to the NCAA Tournament, give the kids a pat on the backside and say, "Do your best."

But we've mentioned here before that Xavier as the little team that could is a tired cop out (see "Does Xavier Have the Drive to Win; Does UC Have the Patience?" issue of Feb. 20). And the Musketeers this year are playing for much more than themselves.

Seldom, if ever, does a team from outside the big six conferences enter the tournament so well regarded as Xavier, which is up to ninth on the final RPI. We know about Memphis, which is the exception that proves the rule.

Right now, today, Xavier is playing for justice on behalf of the little guy.

In the last couple years, the NCAA Tournament has closed ranks for the major conferences. We need a team to tell the powers what time it is. We need Xavier to be that team.

During the first half of this decade, the NCAA showed appropriate respect for the so-called "mid-major" conferences, which is everyone except the six leagues affiliated with the football BCS. It wasn't uncommon for the lower leagues to place nine or 10 at-large teams in the tournament, and the NCAA went as high as 12 in 2004.

Gaining tournament experience, the mid-majors turned noisy two years ago, which developed as one of the most peculiar and influential tournaments we'll ever see. Most people agreed that the selection committee did its worst job ever, giving such inconsistent explanations that Jim Nantz and Billy Packer went at it with the committee chairman on their television interview.

The committee gave the Missouri Valley Conference three at-large bids, and nine such selections went to the lower conferences. Even the Colonial Athletic Association received an at-large bid.

Then the games began, starting with nine seed upsets in the first round and five seed upsets in the second round. Three of those lower league at-large teams advanced to the Sweet 16. None of the regional top seeds advanced to the Final Four, though 11th-seeded George Mason did.

By letting in more wild cards from the lower leagues, the NCAA Tournament gradually put on a better show, while those lower leagues showed that they can play when it counts. They showed that their at-large candidates will give representative performances if the selection committee gives them a fighting chance with the numbers.

For whatever reason, those chances have dried up in the last two years. From that moment when George Mason went to the Final Four, we've seen a harsh decline in the number of at-larges from the lower leagues.

Last year, the NCAA turned around and invited only six at-larges from the mid-majors. And the brackets for this year's tournament came back with the same number of lower league at-larges.

The NCAA will tell you it's a coincidence, and you can believe it or not. The committee left out Dayton and Illinois State, which are 32nd and 33rd in the RPI. Those rankings should almost guarantee a selection. Meanwhile, the committee included Kansas State (50th), Kentucky (57th) and Oregon (58th).

Not coincidentally, last year's tournament closely followed form. Though there were 11 upsets in the first two rounds, five of those were adjacent seeds (nines over eights and fives over fours). We might expect the same this year, because that's the tournament the committee has set up.

Cinderella is dead, and the selection committee has killed her by going out of its way to exclude wild cards from the lower leagues so it could include wild cards from the bigger leagues.

But the committee had to take Xavier seriously. XU took comers from each of the major conferences, winning five of those seven games. The Musketeers beat Indiana and Kansas State, which are in the NCAA Tournament. Then they dominated an Atlantic-10 that wound up putting three teams into the NCAA Tournament.

The selection committee, by seeding Xavier third, obviously believes XU, among the non-BCS schools, is worthy of a fair shot at the national title. Xavier is the token example to which the committee can point and say, "We gave a non-BCS school a chance."

If Xavier falls short of the Sweet 16, the seed is wasted. Xavier needs to surpass that seed, use it up, then blow it up. The question, that irritating question, is if the XU campers will attack the challenge.

Like the Florida teams that have won the last two national titles, Xavier is noted for scoring balance. Florida, of course, did balance with NBA lottery picks, but Xavier is more balanced, with six players averaging between 11.7 and 10.0 points per game.

Senior guard play fuels Xavier, with Drew Lavender distributing the ball and Stanley Burrell shutting down the other team's top perimeter threat. Josh Duncan is the sixth man of Red Auerbach's dreams. How far can they go?

The Western regional semifinal sets up as Xavier vs. Duke in a rematch of the 2004 regional final that stopped the Musketeers barely short of the Final Four. Duke persists as a reliable Sweet 16 program, finally snapping a streak of nine straight trips to the regional semifinals with last year's first-round loss to Virginia Commonwealth.

As it's happened, though, that 2004 Final Four trip for Duke is its only such excursion since winning its last national title in 2001. As of 2001, Mike Krzyzewski took the Blue Devils to the Final Four nine times in 16 seasons, winning three national championships. Those were days of a great program, going to the Final Four more than every other year.

Since then, Duke has reached only that 2004 Final Four in the last six seasons. And this year's Xavier team, unlike the 2004 outfit, has made itself at home in the national mix all season.

While the 2004 team came from nowhere with a hot finish, this year's team is an entirely different cast coming from the top. It's time for Xavier to carry that mantle as a true contender.

As the seeds lay it out, Xavier would have to beat Georgia, Purdue, Duke, UCLA, Memphis and North Carolina. Is that a lot to ask? Sure it is.

Let's ask for it anyway.

Contact Bill Peterson: [email protected]

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