No. 2 XAVIER vs No. 15 WEBER STATE, Friday, 7:20 p.m.
Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Mo.
BETTING LINE: Xavier -13.5
KENPOM GIVES Xavier an 87 percent chance to win
WINNER GETS The winner of No. 7 Wisconsin/No. 11 Michigan/Tulsa
HOW WE GOT HERE: Xavier lost 87-83 in the semifinals of the Big East tournament to Seton Hall. The Musketeers still managed to snag a a No. 2 seed in theBig Dance based on its 28 victories — 12 coming against teams in the top 100 of the latest RPI rankings.
Weber State, which has 26 wins of its own and is No. 108 in the RPI, won both the regular season and postseason tournament in the Big Sky Conference. The Wildcats, of course, can’t match the number of quality wins of the Musketeers. In terms of RPI, WSU’s best win was Dec. 22 at home, a 99-95 victory against South Dakota State (26-7, No. 28 in the RPI).
PREVIEWING THE GAME: Let’s start with the most pressing question in regard to this game and work our way from there: Can Weber State pull off the upset and knock off Xavier? The Wildcats are 6-16 all-time in the NCAA tournament, and the Big Sky Conference hasn’t won a game in the Dance since 2006 when 12th-seeded Montana beat No. 5 Nevada 87-79.
Weber State last made a major splash in the NCAA tourney when it shocked No. 3 North Carolina 76-74 in 1999. Since 1985, when the tournament field was expanded to 64 teams, the Big Sky Conference has three wins, total — like, period.
No. 12 Montana 87, No. 5 Nevada 79
No. 14 Weber State 76, No. 3 North Carolina 74
No. 14 Weber State 79, No. 3 Michigan State 72
In the past 31 years, a Big Sky team has lost to a No. 1 seed eight times, a 2 seven times, a 3 four times, a 4 eight times and a 5 once.
Getting to the point: Weber State and the rest of the Big Sky need monumental wins for the league to garner respect. But when your best team — this year, the Wildcats — goes 18-3 against league competition, works itself to No. 108 in the RPI, has an NBA draft prospect and still only manages a 15 seed in the tournament … well … it’s an uphill battle.
And that’s nothing new.
Getting back around to the original question of whether WSU can pull off an upset …
Xavier is no joke. The Musketeers are one of nine teams in the country that have reached five Sweet 16s since 2008. Sophomore Trevon Bluiett is XU’s first All-American since Tu Holloway in 2011-12.
The talk in Cincinnati this week is whether this season’s Xavier men’s basketball squad is the school’s best, ever. EVER. That’s no quaint discussion to have considering the program’s basketball chops.
That sort of discussion springs up after Xavier was tabbed as a No. 2 seed, the best in the school’s history. And it’s placed the Musketeers in unfamiliar territory. Usually, they’re viewed as one of the little guys, the underdog in the NCAA tournament. As Shannon Russell, the Xavier beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer, points out in a recent article, the Musketeers were a 6 seed a year ago, a 12 in 2014 and a 10 in 2012.
“Where teams mess up is the fact that they try to get comfortable,” junior guard Myles Davis told the Enquirer. “We don’t want to be comfortable. We want to be just as hungry as any other team.”
So is it possible Xavier adjusts poorly to the reality of being the “hunted” rather than the “hunter?” If there’s a positive of being a 13.5-point underdog in the tournament like Weber coach Randy Rahe and the Wildcats, it’s always the fact that the neutral-site crowd will root for you in a close game. And if WSU can keep within striking distance of XU late into the second half, the pressure of the moment falls squarely on the Musketeers.
And, yes, it does seem like a possibility Weber State can give itself a shot at keeping things close Friday. The Wildcats are 90th in the country in defensive efficiency, holding teams to .100 points per possession. With Joel Bolomboy, Kyndahl Hill and Zach Braxton patrolling the paint, WSU was particularly good defensively in the Big Sky, leading the league in defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage defense and 2-point defensive shooting percentage.
The formula for Weber on Friday …… Control the pace of the game — XU is 29th in the country in adjusted tempo — to keep Xavier’s athletes in check + get comfortable working against the Musketeer’s 1-3-1 zone* + Bolomboy needs to dominate the paint and defensive glass + and Jeremy Senglin has to play out of his mind.^
If any of those things don’t happen, it’s hard to conjure a scenario where Weber State comes out on top. But who the heck knows, really? This is supposed to be the NCAA tournament where everybody’s bracket is shredded to pieces because there are no clear favorites. This is the season of parity.
And maybe it’s the season when Weber State can become the darling for the nation. Maybe.
*According to an article on FiveThiryEight, Xavier has used the 1-3-1 zone on 33.6 percent of its defensive possessions and held opponents to .797 points per possession when doing so — which is just spectacular.
— Kyle Franko