By Benjamin Lampkin
ORLANDO, Fla.– It’s the hottest of the hot versus the coldestof the cold. When looking at key aspects in the matchup betweenNo.7 seed Xavier Unviversity and the No.10 seeded University ofLouisville in Friday’s NCAA Tournament first round game, the team’srecords over the latter half of the season would make choosing awinner seem obvious.
The Musketeers, winners of the Atlantic 10 TournamentChampionship, have had a string of six consecutive wins, and haveemerged victourious from 13 of their last 14 contests. That stringof wins also includes the dismantling of the No.1 ranked team inthe country, Saint Joseph’s, in an 87-67 slaughter that ended theHawks’ bid for a perfect season.
The Cardinals have done everything possible to stumble intotheir second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Injuries toTaquan Dean, Luke Whitehead, and first-team all-Conference USAperformer Francisco Garcia halted a 16-game winning streak and ledto a 4-8 record in their final 12 games. After being favored to winC-USA before the season, the Cards finished in sixth place and wereknocked out in the conference tournament’s second round byCincinnati.
“We went on an incredible run. We didn’t understand it ascoaches,” said U of L head coach Rick Pitino. “As long as you getto the tournament today, that’s all that matters, cause anythingcan happen.”
Xavier also found itself stumbling, staring at a 10-9 record inlate January. But a win in the Crosstown Shootout over heatedin-city rival Cincinnati spearheaded a run of seven-straight winsand victories in 13 of their final 14 games. In essence, theirseason’s fortunes are in reverse of what’s happened inLouisville.
“As we got into February, our schedule became more favorable,”said Xavier head coach Thad Matta. “I really don’t want our guys tobe confident. I want them to be confident in our system, not in ourplay.”
Xavier boasts a senior backcourt that includes All-Americancandidate Romain Sato. Sato, who originally hails from CentralAfrican Republic, averages 16.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and over twoassists per game. His running mate, Lionel Chalmers, is rightbehind at an even 16 points a contest and was named Atlantic 10Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Chalmers, however, was quick tosay that the Musketters are not thinking about theiraccomplishments.
“That part of the season is behind us. We’re experienced andwe’re just ready to play,” he said.
U of L is getting its best production of the season from Garica,who scored 28 points on 10-14 shooting in a losing effort toCincinnati in the C-USA quarterfinals.
When asked about the Cardinals, Matta was quick to point totheir defense as an unheralded key to the team, and also gave highpraise to Garcia.
“I think they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country,and it kind of goes unnoticed,” Matta said. “In Francisco Garcia, Ithink you have one of the most proficient players in collegebasketball. And if you try to stop his scoring, he’ll beat you withthe pass.”
Xavier star Romain Sato also praised the abilities of Garcia,adding, “the best players are always gonna score, and I’m justgonna try and slow him down.”
For the Cards, injuries are beginning to subside and not play asbig a factor any longer.
“We feel like we’re strong now,” said Whitehead. “I’m ready togo.”
“I think Luke has to get back to playing great defense andrebounding,” added Pitino. “We’re hoping that he has a bigdefensive game.”
Dean, who has been slowed the most over the past month with apulled groin, said that he is “100 percent,” with Pitino creditingDean as being, “the head on our defense.”
Tip-off is set for around 9:50 immediately following theMississippi State-Monmouth contest at the TD Waterhouse Center indowntown Orlando.