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Weekend Homework: Welcome Xavier back

1/10/2014

The first rule of writing about Xavier basketball is that you never overlook Xavier basketball. It’s a little bit like picking a non-Kansas Big 12 team to win the Big 12: After a few years of being wrong, you eventually just stop.

Xavier has spent a decade earning its one rule. When Thad Matta left for Ohio State in 2004, Sean Miller kept winning Atlantic 10 titles and reaching Sweet 16s; when Miller left for Arizona in 2009, Chris Mack did the same. Often, the Musketeers’ personnel would seem due for a step back in a “transition” year, but they just kept winning.

After Tu Holloway graduated and Mark Lyons said a not-so-fond farewell, Mack’s team was gutted. He would have to rely on young, unsung players. But still: This was Xavier. I expected the Musketeers to put together a tournament season, because, one way or another, they almost always did. And then they went 17-15. My faith in Xavier was destroyed.

That frustrating 2012-13 has loomed over Xavier’s 2013-14, preventing many from taking the Musketeers seriously as a (new) Big East contender. An 0-3 trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas in November -- Xavier lost to Iowa (in OT), Tennessee (64-49), and USC (yikes) -- didn’t do the Musketeers any favors, either. But it’s not November anymore. It’s January, and since the Bahamas, Xavier has won eight straight games. Counting Xavier out of its conference title race now seems as silly as it ever.

Now, not every eight-game winning streak is made equally, especially in December, when big tallies draw a solid share from guarantee games and other home cupcakes. Xavier’s winning steak includes wins over Bowling Green and Evansville, sure, but also a neutral-court win over Cincinnati, a win at Alabama, convincing victories over Wake Forest, St. John’s and Butler, and Thursday night’s victory over Marquette.

Because the Cincinnati win came back when no one knew how good the Bearcats’ defense really was (hint: it’s awesome) and none of the rest of those opponents is a top-15 or top-10 team, Xavier’s streak has come without much fanfare.

This weekend might finally put a stop that. Thursday night’s win over Marquette came complete with a star performance from guard Semaj Christon, the promising but still developing star of last year’s team. The sophomore version is vastly improved: Christon has raised his offensive rating from 95.9 to 110.6, while shooting better (and more frequently) from the perimeter and lowering his assist rate from 22.2 percent to just 13.7. On Thursday, Christon scored a career-high 28 points, and hit two huge late 3s, to drop Marquette.

On Saturday, Criston, junior forward Matt Stainbrook and the rest of a surprisingly efficient Musketeers offense will take their show to Creighton, where they’ll face star forward Doug McDermott and Creighton’s high-powered attack. A win on the road -- or even a good, entertaining game that gets people talking (hardly Chris Mack’s goal, but still) -- should officially and finally end any hope Xavier had of playing good basketball under the radar for the next two months.

And so it came to pass that Xavier’s one rule was restored, and peace returned to the kingdom. What a relief.