X Is a Factor Again in March Madness

We made such a fuss a few weeks ago when Xavier lost three straight on the road in the Atlantic-10 Conference. We started wondering if the same team that could lose to tournament rejects on the road could beat tournament teams on neutral sites. What got

Mar 24, 2009 at 2:06 pm

One realizes that he’s tried too hard to be a college basketball fan and is therefore a fool when he notices that he’s taken the regular season seriously.

Such a fuss we made those few weeks ago when Xavier lost three straight on the road in the Atlantic-10 Conference. We started wondering if the same team that could lose to tournament rejects on the road could beat tournament teams on neutral sites.

What got into us? What made us forget that the regular season is such a colossal waste of time?

Into the vacuum of the college basketball season came an apparent development, and it just couldn’t go unremarked like it should have. We thought it might matter that Xavier didn’t show up for certain games. We thought Xavier’s folding act on the road within the Atlantic-10 was some kind of a development.

But there are no true developments during the regular season. There’s only time, and its only purpose is to pass.

Hating to merely pass the time, we flailed and started acting crazy. Xavier knew the truth and simply passed the time.

They remembered. We forgot.

Now our memories are refreshed. In the end, it couldn’t have mattered less how Xavier played in places like Duquesne and Charlotte. Maybe the Muskies would have taken a third seed for winning them all, but they weren’t going to climb into the very top groups and no one can quarrel with how it has worked out anyway.

The Musketeers finished 20th in the coaches’ poll, 22nd in the media poll and 17th in the RPI. At that, they were a solid five seed to the naked eye, maybe a six. Then throw in that the Muskies lost five of their last 10 games in the league, tournament included. One wondered if it could be a six at best, maybe a seven.

But the NCAA Tournament selection committee gave the Musketeers a fourth seed, and from that we can only conclude that Xavier is part of the establishment now.

XU is in the final mix so often and consistently that it almost receives an historic nod from the selection committee, a bit of the star treatment, like an NBA great who never gets called for traveling. Like Gonzaga or Memphis, Xavier is close to a college basketball independent. The name alone is worth a couple seeds.

Year after year of making the tournament and pulling the slick win has built Xavier into something of a tournament brand. The little Jesuit school that could is in the Sweet 16 for the second straight time and the third time in six years, hoping to make it to the Elite Eight for the third time in that span.

Xavier, like Gonzaga, is sort of the Marquette of the 1970s, the little Jesuit school that did. The NCAA is happy to hold up a program like Xavier as an example of what college sports can achieve, and now that the NCAA recognizes XU as that kind of program all blessings will flow.

Xavier not only received a stunning break with the No. 4 seed in the East Region, but then the dominoes started to fall right in the tournament. While XU packed up Portland State 77-59 on March 20, the next prospective opponent, fifth-seeded Florida State, stumbled against No. 12 Wisconsin’s stalling tactics. Thus, the Muskies got to line up in the second round against a 12th seed and ground out a 60-49 win.

So the Musketeers are back in the Sweet 16, and they can hang another plaque on the wall. They’re part of the club, and they’ve earned it.

In the last five completed tournaments, Xavier went to the Elite Eight twice — as many times as Texas, Florida or Louisville, one time less than North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis or UCLA, and more than anyone else.

Back in 1990, when that Xavier team with Tyrone Hill and Jamal Walker made it to the Sweet 16, we saw a Cinderella story. In 2004, when three seniors each added enough game down the stretch to replace David West, leading the Muskies to the regional championship game against Duke, we saw a truly inspirational team. Last year, we saw the real deal, a team that truly belonged in the Elite Eight.

This season, the Muskies threw us a curve, starting the year strong and positioning for a move into the highest echelons of the rankings, until it all appeared to crack in a hail of road losses against the lower echelons of the Atlantic-10. We should have known how little it would matter, but we forgot.

It’s not the regular season that accounts for how the selection committee seeds Xavier. It’s NCAA Tournament history. Xavier has a good thing going now and, if nothing else comes from this season, at least the Musketeers have kept it going by winning two games the seeds said they should have.

In no other NCAA Tournament has club membership meant so much. For the first time in history, all of the top 12 seeds have advanced to the Sweet 16, as have 14 of the top 16. Two fourth seeds made it: Xavier and Gonzaga.

Many are upset that the tournament this year lacked upsets, but the time to worry about that is when the selections are made. Once the seedings were in, so was the fix.

The little leagues totaled two at-large bids. This tournament wasn’t going to be a Cinderella story.

It’s a story of the biggest and the best, and Xavier is among them no matter what the regular season made us think about this team. All that matters in college basketball is March, which makes March a great month, December kind of important, January utterly dispensable and February not even worth mentioning.

By this weekend, we’re probably down to four No. 1 seeds and their challengers. In that event, Xavier is back to its familiar role as the upstart against Pittsburgh.

Of course, as the selection committee well knows, Xavier is about as experienced in that regional championship game as any program in college basketball during the last few years. That is, Xavier isn’t an upstart.

Xavier is a factor. In March. Which is the only time when it matters.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: [email protected]