As was the case last year, we’ll go right up to game time slicing and dicing Minnesota’s NCAA tournament first round match-up. Today, we look back at Xavier’s non-conference schedule, over the next few days we’ll also look at their players and strengths and weakness, culminating Thursday with the final preview and a few predictions. Also, check back daily for links to the many articles about Gopher basketball in local and national news. It’ll be hard to keep up, but we’ll do our best.

The Xavier Musketeers, the #6 seed in the West Region, earned an at-large bid after finishing second in the Atlantic 10 conference with 14-2 record  in conference and 24-8 overall.

Xavier, like everyone other than the lowest of the low-majors, started off the season on an easy note. They opened the season against eventual last place Horizon League finisher Youngstown State with an 83-57 victory.  The Musketeers held the Penguins to 33% shooting and five musketeers scored in double figures. They followed that win with an impressive performance over Bowling Green, the 9th place MAC. That 46 point victory featured 65% shooting by the Musketeers and a 22 rebound advantage. Once again five players scored in double figures. The 10th place team in the North East Conference wasn’t much competition either, as Xavier scored over 100 points for the second straight game. Jordan Crawford, Xavier’s leading scorer, had 26 points and the back-up center, scored 14 points in only 16 minutes.

Like the Gophers, the Musketeers played in one of the many exempt tournaments over Thanksgiving weekend, and it turned into a rough patch, like the Gophers. In the opening round of the Old Spice Classic, Xavier lost to Marquette 71-61. The game was closer than the final score suggests, and Xavier actually led by one with six minutes left. Marquette went on a 15-6 run to end the game. Jordan Crawford scored only 9 points on 4-20 shooting, and only three of those shots were from behind the three point line. As a team the Musketeers shot only 36% and turned the ball over 20 times. Despite the massive amount of turnovers, they still attempted 18 more shots than the Golden Eagles behind 21 offensive rebounds. Xavier bounced back against Creighton, the fourth place team in the MVC, behind hot shooting and their ability to get to the free throw line. They shot 53% from the field and made 13 free throws compared to only 11 free throw attempts by the Bluejays. In the final game of the weekend, Xavier had what has to be their best loss of the season, dropping a 65-69 decision against the Baylor Bears. The Bears hit a barrage of three pointers, 11 in all, to hold off a feisty come back attempt.

Unlike the Gophers, Xavier returned home right after their tournament for an easy win against Kent State, the regular season MAC champions.  Once again, shooting and free throws were the difference. It is hard to lose when shooting 67% behind the line and making five more free throws than the opponent attempts.

After the brief easier game interlude, Xavier faced three consecutive ranked or soon to be ranked teams. The Musketeers faced their toughest game of the season at Kansas State, and weren’t a match for the Wildcats, who won by 15.  Xavier made only 15 field goals during the entire game. They bounced back with a four point victory against cross town rival Cincinnati in a double overtime game  that featured 47 fouls, two technical fouls, two near brawls and 58 free throw attempts. Jason Love, Xavier’s starting center pulled down 19 points and Terrell Holloway replaced Jordan Crawford in the starting line-up to score 26 points and made all 11 of his free throw attempts. The next game, a one point loss against Butler, featured more bad blood when several Musketeers, including the coach, tried to attack the official time keeper who correctly denied them a desperation attempt to tie the game. The altercation spilled into the stands, but the real victim is the drinking fountain in the visitor’s locker room at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which was ripped out of the wall. The real source of the frustration should have been their 5-10 free throw shooting.

Desperately in need of a some good luck, the schedule provided it. Though it should have been an easy win, they barely beat Miami of Ohio who was 3-9 at the time. Perhaps it was a let down or maybe it was just one of those nights, but it took four free throws in the last 24 seconds by Jordan Crawford to secure a 3 point win. Free throws once again were a factor as Xavier made four more than Miami attempted.  Xavier beat LSU by 24 t0 wrap up the home non-conference season and held a 12 offensive rebound advantage and forced LSU into 1-14 three point shooting.

Xavier’s final non-conference game was another two overtime thriller with the Musketeers on the losing end by four to Wake Forest. The emotional night was the first game of a 10 year series between the two schools to honor Skip Prosser, the former coach of both teams who died in 2007. Jordan Crawford scored 30 points, but it took him 25 shots, and his team shot only 37% for the game.

Things looked bleak heading into the conference season with an 8-5 record. They would need to turn things around to make it back to the NCAA tournament, and needless to say they did. Tomorrow we’ll look at Xavier’s romp through the Atlantic 10 into the NCAA tournament.