Saturday night's Gonzaga-Xavier game in Cincinnati (ESPN2, 8 ET) should be a telling barometer for both teams.
The Zags have two studs down low, especially Elias Harris. ORU assistant coach Sean Sutton said, "He looks totally different from last year. I know people said he was playing hurt or whatever, but he looks well, has a ton of skill and he is such a difficult matchup." Nevertheless, Gonzaga is still seen as somewhat "soft" by most opposing coaching staffs across the country. That's a perception the Zags constantly battle.
Meanwhile, Xavier looked completely out of sync in all three of its games at the Diamond Head Classic in Honoloulu, losing to Long Beach State and Hawaii and surviving the Missouri Valley's cellar-dweller (Southern Illinois) for its only win.
With its inept bench and supporting cast being partially exposed during the various suspensions following its fight against Cincinnati, X has gone from popular Elite Eight/Final Four pick to out of the Top 25. But with freshman wing Dez Wells back for his first game since suspension, the Musketeers will be at full strength for this one. Can they recapture the magic?
I'm fascinated to see if Gonzaga freshman Kevin Pangos can contain either of the two Xavier guards, or if X can handle Mark Few's sets to get Pangos open. Gonzaga may have a soft rep, but Robert Sacre is not. Can he and Harris be tough enough without getting into foul trouble? Many of those answers will come from the Cintas Center on Saturday night. I can't wait.
What they're saying about Xavier:
I just returned from Hawaii and the most discussed team by far was struggling and undermanned Xavier. Given anonymity, here is what a few coaches on and off the island are saying about the Musketeers.
— "That team has a bad vibe. We kind of felt like they were barely keeping it together. (Tu) Holloway and (Mark) Lyons seem to browbeat the rest of them, which hurts their teammates' confidence level."
— "Their guards are nasty, at times unguardable, but there is not much else to them. Maybe Wells makes a big difference. He looks like he will be a star eventually, but he is only a freshman. It is strange because (Kenny) Frease should dominate people and get them in foul trouble, but instead he misses easy shots and gets into foul trouble himself."
— "I like their team. They all kind of act like tough guys and it works for them. The fight has clearly hurt their rhythm and overall chemistry, but I still like how they defend and compete. Tu Holloway is just a competitor. He takes bad shots, doesn't always get everyone involved, but wants to personally see to your destruction."