The Musketeers and Mountaineers are near mirror images. Both are averaging 75 points while allowing 63. Both grab 35 rebounds per game and have made about 260 threes. The assist and turnover numbers are similar. All that likeness extends even into the mindset of each program.
West Virginia attacks foes with man pressure and tenacity unmatched by any other school squad in recent memory. It has literally fought for rebounds in the postseason, Cam Thoroughman sending a forearm into the back of Duke's Gerald Henderson after the two exchanged elbows in the lane. That came after Wellington Smith floored one Blue Devil with a screen and Joe Mazzulla answered the challenge of Greg Paulus by telling the guard he'd had enough of his lip – and that more comments might cause a fat one.
Xavier has used the same mixture to win a school-record 29 games. It has a prototypical swingman in 6-6, 220-pound C.J. Anderson and an athletic power forward with Derrick Brown. Guard play is controlled by savvy senior Drew Lavender, a pass-first player who can shoot the three. The center is serviceable and gets help off the bench in Josh Duncan, a 6-9 forward who can out-jump taller players. Interchange player names – and even attitudes – and it might as well be a West Virginia scouting report.
"They play hard, and that brings toughness to your team," Thoroughman said. "Being deep and having guys that score have allowed both teams to get here. But we are similar, both tough teams that take what is there."
While also dishing it out. The Musketeers beat up on a Cincinnati side used to doing the same, besting the Bearcats 64-59 by creating a stalemate in rebounding. They knocked off Indiana by 15 points and bashed Belmont, a team that played Duke within a point in the NCAA opening round, by 31. Xavier even held Kansas State's Michael Beasley, arguably the most intimidating player in college basketball, to five points in a blowout win. The catalyst for all of it has been a defense-first philosophy and a value of rebounding and rugged play.
"They are much more physical than what they've been in the past," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "They run great sets and they have great balance. A lot of that has to do with Sean (Miller, Xavier's head coach). He has done a great job of exploiting people's weaknesses."
That'll be the goal again. West Virginia handled Arizona and surprisingly soft Duke with more desire and grit. But shove Xavier and it shoves right back. The Atlantic-10 school has been spouting the same motivations as the Mountaineers: They are overlooked and undervalued, and don't get due respect despite being ranked as high as 10th. A Big East team is a bull's eye, with the Elite Eight being the eventual target.
"We're completely consumed with being really good against West Virginia," said Miller, who played point guard at Pitt in the 1980s. "Our team, our staff, we owe Xavier University to be at our best. … We've been led by great experience and togetherness and we're hungry to continue to play. I think we recognize that getting here is one thing, but being able to stay here enters our team in a completely different category."
The game, as several players noted, will likely come down to which team can make shots while creating hassles for the other. Xavier is 22-0 when four players reach double figures. West Virginia is 24-0 when outshooting foes. But both are getting trounced on the boards in losses, and have been handled physically in such setbacks.
"They are real physical and crash the glass, so we know they will bring that," A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Stanley Burrell said. "Our level of intensity will have to be at a high level if we want to advance to the Elite Eight. We're looking forward to the challenge."
There will be no intimidation, no mental edge to either team. Just a bitter battle in a round labeled as sweet.
"(Huggins) has told us that there were times they won games just on mental and physical toughness," Mazzulla said. "That's what he tries to get us to do. I think in the beginning, we didn't do it as well. Now, we are playing like that every game. You might be knocked down on the ground, or bleeding, but you're all right. So get up."