Saturday, March 20, 2010
Xavier, Pitt ready for rematch in name only
By Eamonn Brennan
MILWAUKEE -- The more things change, the more -- well, you know.
After these two teams met in the Sweet 16 last year, both braced for an exodus. At Xavier, former coach Sean Miller left for greener -- and I don't mean grassier -- pastures in Arizona. B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson graduated and Derrick Brown left for the NBA. At Pittsburgh, coach Jamie Dixon saw his three leading scorers -- DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields -- move on.
And yet, here we are again. Pittsburgh and Xavier barely resemble the 2008-09 squads that met in last year's Sweet Sixteen, but both teams are, despite preseason expectations, back for another battle.
"We definitely remember that from last year," Xavier forward Jason Love said. "But we're two different teams. Some guys from their team played in it and some didn't, just like us."
It's a remarkable statement both of these programs that this second annual meeting is even happening in the first place. Few predicted Pittsburgh would spend much, if any, of their 2009-10 campaign in the top 25. Instead, the Panthers were supposed to be rebuilding, recovering from the loss of their undisputed four-year leader, Fields, as well as one of the more dominating rebounders in recent college basketball history in Blair.
Instead, after struggling early Pitt stormed the Big East, winning its first five games, hanging tough throughout the year, and securing a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. And when the rest of the Big East fell away in the first round, Pittsburgh handled undermatched Oakland with the balanced efficiency of a well-oiled machine.
"Pittsburgh, whether it's the offensive end or defensive end, is a very challenging team," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It's been remarkable what they've done."
Mack is right, but he might save some of that praise for the job he's done in his first year at Xavier. After losing a host of big, physical personnel, Mack adapted his style to his new players -- most notably uptempo scorer Jordan Crawford and point guard Terrell Holloway. The Musketeers have gone from being one of the better defenses in the country with a decent offense to having one of the best offenses in the country and an decent defense. And yet, once again, they're here, having won at least one game in the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Xavier will have its hands full with Pittsburgh's balanced attack. The Panthers had six scorers in double figures in its Friday win over Oakland. Likewise, the Panthers will have to come up with a way to stop Crawford, who was brilliant in Xavier's first-round win over Minnesota.
"He's going to get shots up," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "He gets a lot of shots. He's going to score some points. We've got to make it as tough as possible and guard him as much as possible, and [not give him anything] easy."
Whatever happens, it will be a testament to both programs this rematch -- a rematch in name only -- is indeed on the docket Sunday in Milwaukee. When asked to discuss his team's turnover at the open media session Friday, Jamie Dixon could have been talking about his opponents, too.
"I know you're supposed to follow the coaching manual, Coaching 101," Dixon said. "When you go into a year when you lose a whole bunch of guys you're supposed to talk about how young you are and inexperienced you are and what you don't have. You're supposed to lower expectations.
But with us and our team, we weren't going to go that route," Dixon continued. "We didn't lower our expectations. Our demands remained the same. And I think our players really bought into it. ... There would be no excuses for coming up short. That was the mentality that we had."