Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Along Came a Spider

As I'm sure everyone's noticed by now, the Atlantic 10 is one of the best conferences to watch in the country. Its teams have proved that they can win against high level competition (just ask Villanova, Florida, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma St. and Louisville) and the result has been an incredible leap in national attention and respect as 7 teams are being considered for NCAA bids. Xavier, Temple and Richmond are all in very good shape currently and are playing more for seeding than anything, but Rhode Island, Dayton, Charlotte and St. Louis are still holding out hope of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday, although they've been killing themselves late in the season. Maybe if they can repeat this success next year Rick Majerus will actually be content being in a league this impressive (but I doubt it).

Over the past few weeks, Xavier moved itself back into a tie at the top of the standings with significant wins at Charlotte and St. Louis. The Charlotte contest was never really close as the Muskies got up big early and held the 49ers at bay for the rest of the game. The loss dealt a huge blow to Charlotte's NCAA chances, but with the bubble as weak as it is there's no question they still have a shot at dancing. St. Louis may not be in the same, optimistic position however. The Billikens (what the hell is a Billiken??) were dealt their first A-10 home loss of the season by X on Wednesday night as they fell 73-71. Xavier was down 6 at half but used an early 16-0 run in the 2nd half to jump in front of St. Louis by 10 on their way to controlling the rest of the game. The loss was crippling for St. Louis and they will now need to win their 2 matchups this week against Temple and Dayton, along with a deep run in the A-10 tournament, to jump back into consideration for a bid.

Xavier's time at the top of the A-10 seemed in serious trouble this past weekend though. Sunday showcased a premium national contest between X and the Richmond Spiders, a team that has taken down quality opponents all season and is charging towards its first NCAA tournament appearance in 6 years. There was no doubt in the minds of the fans that this was going to be a hotly contested battle that would come down to the wire. The first half of the game was back and forth as Xavier continually jumped out to small leads but were quickly answered by Richmond, almost always with a deep 3 ball. At the end of 20 minutes the Muskies had the lead by 4 but it might as well have been tied.

The 2nd half was a great deal like the first with ties and lead changes dominating the scoreboard.
Jason Love and Jamel McLean were cleaning up inside for the Muskies and the Spiders had practically no answer for them all afternoon. X had a couple 6 point leads but Richmond quickly responded each time, usually with guards David Gonzalvez and Kevin Anderson (who were outstanding). Xavier settled into a 3 point lead with 24 seconds left on the clock, but Gonzalvez responded again, nailing a 3 to tie the game (I was almost sick when it went in). X called a timeout and tried to set up a play for Jordan Crawford but all he could get off was a 30 foot heave that hopped high off the back rim and pushed the game to overtime.

In the first overtime, there were again multiple ties and lead changes and the margin was not larger than 2 points by either team. Again, Jason Love played leader and made the final basket for the Musketeers in overtime, tying the game at 70 with 1:42 to play. Crawford again had a chance to win it, but his jumper near the right baseline was errant which sent the game to a second overtime. The teams gave the fans their money's worth in the second OT period as well. Terrell Holloway made his presence felt even more, opening with a triple atop the 3-point arch to give Xavier a 73-70 lead. After an Anderson bucket, Holloway charged hard through the lane on the next two offensive possessions, which translated into a lay-up and two free throws. The foul shots provided X with a 77-72 lead with 2:30 left. Richmond narrowed the gap to two points at 78-76 and had the opportunity to tie and extend the game yet again, but Justin Harper missed a reverse lay-in attempt and X escaped with a victory. The game took nearly 3 hours, I couldn't see by the end of it, Jerry Springer was in attendance, it was heaven.

This game really personified the way the Atlantic 10 has played out this season and the way every game is going to be a tough one. Xavier is now tied at the top with the Temple Owls at 12-2 in conference play and is rolling along having won 9 of their past 10 contests. Jason Love is the absolute epitome of a senior leader and if you saw his Top 10 play on Sportscenter last week you'd see why (a one-handed putback at St. Louis while falling to the ground for those who missed it). The Muskies play at Rose Hill Gym tonight in the Bronx as they take on the Fordham Rams, losers of 20 straight games (some kind of record I imagine). Xavier's RPI will probably drop 8 spots just for playing the game but that's also why the RPI shouldn't mean as much as people think IMO. Regardless, X's winning streak has set them up for a great showing in Atlantic City at the A-10 tournament and hopefully for a high seed in the Dance as well.

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