The bad news is Xavier put itself in a position where it essentially has to play its way back into the tournament following Saturday’s 71-68 loss at DePaul.
The good news is that this year’s lighter non-conference schedule always lent itself to that being the most likely scenario for this season anyways, and the Musketeers will actually have an unexpected number of opportunities to bolster its resume with impressive conference wins thanks to the Big East as a whole playing well above preseason expectations.
Without even factoring in road games (which the Musketeers have struggled mightily with), they still have four teams currently ranked in the top 25 of the RPI coming to play at the Cintas Center. (Ed note: The RPI itself is a crude tool when it comes to comparing basketball teams, but there’s no denying its usage in the media when tournament time comes around. A big reason for that is its inclusion on the NCAA selection committee’s “team sheets” that show wins against top 1-50, 51-100, 101-200 and 200+ of the RPI… so I’m begrudgingly using it in this instance.)
“I wouldn’t describe it as nice,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said when asked about playing in a conference that allows for those opportunities following a tough loss. “I would describe it as a grinder.”
Those chances to start notching top 25 wins begin Wednesday when Xavier hosts Seton Hall. The Pirates are ranked 19th in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and the AP poll, and 10th in the RPI.
“Gone are the days when you lose a game to a team that you shouldn’t, maybe to a team that people on the outside think you shouldn’t, and that loss becomes one that prevents you from getting in the NCAA tournament,” Mack said. “The fact that you have so many opportunities on your schedule, both home and away, is much different than we’re used to. It’s a grind, and we’ve got a big challenge here tomorrow night.”
The other Big East teams ranked in the top 25 of the RPI include Villanova (7), Butler (23) and St. John’s (25). Providence currently sits just outside the top 25 at 27.
The Musketeers are favored to win all of their remaining home games by Kenpom.com except for the one against Villanova. Kenpom lists XU’s win probability at 41% against the Wildcats. Kenpom also has Xavier losing all but two of its nine remaining road games. The website has the Musketeers’ win probability at 58% at Marquette and 58% at Creighton.
Should all that play out as predicted, Xavier’s record would finish at 19-12 with a 5-8 record against RPI Top 50 teams, a 3-2 record against teams ranked 51-100, an 8-1 record against 101-200, and a 3-1 record against 200-plus.
By comparison, last year they snuck into the tournament as one of the last four in with a 21-12 record that included a 4-6 mark against the RPI’s top 50, 5-3 against 51-100, 9-3 against 101-200 and 3-0 against 200-plus. Those records include a win over Marquette (85) and a loss to Creighton (11) in the Big East tournament.
Sophomore guard Myles Davis said the team understands the level of urgency necessary with the losses mounting at this point in the season.
“It’s just little mistakes with us. It’s not big problems or issues. We’ve gotten better (defensively). (Our KenPom defensive efficiency ranking) dropped from 100 to at one point we were at 81, and now after this game we dropped to 88,” Davis said. “I just think it’s finally finishing possessions, getting more mature and finishing games. We can’t keep winning every (first) half and then come out and lose every second half. Something has to change and it has to happen quick, because now we’re in conference play.”
“But I think we’ll be fine.”
Two of the teams this year that could clearly help Xavier out the most is Alabama, which is inching closer to the top 50 of the RPI at 53 currently, and DePaul, which is hanging outside the 200’s at 208 after back-to-back wins over Marquette and Xavier.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi has Xavier in the tournament as an 11 seed following the loss to DePaul.
While Mack said his staff doesn’t use the team’s tournament resume in the locker room as a motivational tool, the players are aware of where they stand.
“We don’t talk about it as a staff, but they’re not immune. They read the Internet. They’re on twitter, so they see guys like Joe Lunardi, ESPN, Katz, you name it… everybody has a bracketologist. But those things are fluid; you could be a three seed and then three weeks later you could be out of the tournament. So it’s all irrelevant.”
“We just have to get better, and the great thing is with our schedule we have opportunities to put ourselves on the map.”