CINCINNATI – Xavier head coach Sean Miller said his No. 9/11 Musketeers (AP, ESPN/USA Today) played their worst game in a year and a half in 66-56 win over the GW men’s basketball team Saturday night. While Miller was visibly displeased after the game, he should not have been all that surprised.
What Miller, and a sold-out Cintas Center (10,250), witnessed was a contest that represents both how far the Colonials have come in the past three weeks and how strong the Atlantic 10 is this season. Though Xavier (25-4, 13-1 A-10) is heads and shoulders above the rest of the conference in record – it has already clinched the top seed in the conference tournament – and GW (9-15, 5-9 A-10) sits second to the bottom, not much differed between the two teams for a couple hours Saturday evening.
The Musketeers led by as much as 18 in the first half before the Colonials inched back, trailing by eight at halftime. The game was tied with 6:23 remaining and the score remained close until the final two minutes, when the Musketeers closed on an 8-0 run.
“This is an indication that we seem to be getting that GW spirit,” head coach Karl Hobbs said. “Two months ago, we just caved in. I think we grew a little bit tonight. I was very proud of my team and the way we played.”
Xavier has had a string of close calls the past month, winning by more than 10 points just twice. After the game, senior guard Stanley Burrell admitting to not having expected such a hard-fought game.
“I’ve always had a great deal of respect for this program,” Hobbs said. “For us to come in and compete with the No. 9 team in the country… I’m proud of my team. We had the opportunities to finish some plays and we just couldn’t finish them.”
But the Colonials have seen somewhat of a rebirth over the past three weeks, having won four of their last five contests before the Xavier loss. One of those four victories, a 17-point drubbing, was over Rhode Island. The Musketeers only defeated the Rams by four points two weeks ago.
Xavier still has Saint Joseph’s and Richmond left on its schedule, two teams that could potentially earn the second seed in the conference tournament, which begins March 12 in Atlantic City N.J. Temple, at 9-5 in the conference, currently holds that spot but both Saint Joe’s and Richmond could end up there with 8-6 records, along with La Salle and Massachusetts.
But that is not where the confusion ends. Along with these five teams are a slew of others that can still earn one of the three remaining first-round byes, which are awarded to the top four finishers. Rhode Island and Saint Louis are 7-8, and Duquesne and Charlotte are 6-7. Dayton sits at 6-8 and Fordham at 5-9. The Colonials are also at 5-9 but behind Fordham because the Rams defeated GW in January.
One result from Saturday afternoon might sum up best just what an odd season it has been for the conference. St. Bonaventure, which had one conference win before the game, won by 20 points at Saint Louis. The Billikens also scored 20 points at GW in early January but defeated Saint Joe’s and Richmond, two of the conference’s better teams. And then there are all the teams that have come just short of upsetting Xavier. It is hard to find another conference in men’s college basketball in a bigger state of confusion.
Finding where GW fits in is just as difficult. The Colonials could finish as high as seventh if they win at Charlotte Thursday and at home against Massachusetts Saturday. They can finish as low as 13th if they lose one or both of those games.
If GW had upset Xavier Saturday night, it would have been the Colonials’ first win over a top-10 ranked opponent since December 2004. But in the A-10 this season, the victory would not have even seemed that crazy.