No. 4 Xavier hosts No. 3 Villanova in marquee clash

By Andrew Wagner, The Sports Xchange  |  Feb. 17, 2018 at 10:41 AM
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It's been a historic season for the Xavier, but as the No. 4 Musketeers try to lock down their first Big East Conference title and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they'll have to find a way to topple No. 3 Villanova on Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati at the Cintas Center.

Xavier (24-3, 12-2 Big East) holds a 1 1/2-game lead over the defending national champions, who have dominated the current incarnation of the Big East since it formed 2013.

During that stretch, the Musketeers have had little, if any, luck against head coach Jay Wright's squad, dropping nine of 10 meetings to the Wildcats, including three during the 2014-15 season.

"It's not difficult to recognize how dominant Villanova's been since we entered the (Big East)," Xavier coach Chris Mack said Friday. "I just get tired of losing."

Villanova easily dispatched Xavier in the first meeting this season, an 89-65 drubbing at the Wells Fargo Center back on Jan. 10. Wildcats guard Phil Booth scored a game-high 21 points in the contest but won't play Saturday because of a bone fracture.

"They still have a lot of talent," Mack said. "They still have guys that have been in big games. They played a little more zone last game. They're not pressing quite as much ... but their culture, their identity, how hard they battle -- that hasn't changed.

"To think, and our guys don't think that way, that our job would be a little bit easier because Phil Booth is out would be doing a disservice to their program and remaining players."

Xavier has already put the NCAA selection committee on notice this season with an impressive body of work, but a victory Saturday over one of the nation's best teams would be another milestone in an already historic season.

"We want to be at the top of the league. That's been our goal since the day that we got here," Musketeers senior center Sean O'Mara said. "Obviously, we haven't reached that yet and I think we have the potential to this year."

Villanova has dropped two of its last three games, including a stunning loss at Providence earlier in the week that included a season-high 19 turnovers, with 13 of them coming in the second half.

"We weren't physical enough to get open," Wright said. "So then we couldn't run the offense. We were forced to drive the ball and they were more physical than us in that area also."

But bouncing back from a loss has been a hallmark for the Wildcats, who haven't lost consecutive games since the 2012-13 season.

A victory Saturday is crucial for both squads. Xavier would gain a 2 1/2-game lead with three to play and a favorable schedule (at Georgetown, Providence, at DePaul), but if the Wildcats were to knock off the Musketeers and run the table against DePaul, Creighton, Seton Hall and Georgetown, they could finish tied with Xavier and earn the title based on a season sweep.

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