CINCINNATI – Xavier envisioned itself playing for the Big East regular-season championship when it moved into the reconfigured conference five years ago. The Musketeers finally have a chance to unseat four-time champion Villanova and get what they so dearly want.
And they can do it on their home court.
No. 4 Xavier (24-3, 12-2) can take control of the league race by beating No. 3 Villanova (23-3, 10-3) on Saturday at the Cintas Center, where the Musketeers are unbeaten this season. It’s a showdown they’ve long awaited.
“I know to us it means a ton here at Xavier,” senior forward Sean O’Mara said Friday. “A Big East championship has always been a goal since the day I walked on campus here, and we unfortunately have yet to get one.”
Xavier won the Atlantic 10 regularly and aspired to become one of the front-runners when it joined the Big East for the 2013-14 season. The Musketeers finished third that season behind Villanova and Creighton.
The Wildcats have won all four regular-season titles in the reconfigured league, losing a total of nine conference games over that span. Xavier finished second in 2015-16, two games back. A win at the Cintas Center, where Xavier is 16-0, would put the Musketeers in control.
“For us to meet like this, both being high-ranked and at our place, is something that’s really cool and speaks to the ability of both teams to continue to have success in the Big East,” O’Mara said.
So far, the series between Big East heavyweights has tipped heavily in Villanova’s favor.
The Wildcats have won nine of their 10 matchups in the Big East, including the last three by margins of 25, 22 and 24 points. The Wildcats’ 89-65 win on Jan. 10 showed they were still the team to beat in the Big East.
Since then, the Wildcats have had some injuries. Phil Booth scored 21 points in the win over Xavier but is sidelined with a broken hand. Eric Paschall suffered a concussion earlier this month and missed a couple of games. The Wildcats are one of the nation’s top 3-point teams but are only 17 of 71 from beyond the arc in the last three games.
Villanova went only 3 of 20 from beyond the arc and had 19 turnovers during a 76-71 loss at Providence on Wednesday night.
While the Wildcats have dealt with injuries, the Musketeers have gotten healthy and become adept at grinding out wins. They’ve taken nine in a row since that loss at Villanova.
“We’re playing a different way now than we were earlier in the Big East season,” O’Mara said. “We’re much different than we were the first time we played them.”
The Musketeers have developed depth on the front line, improved defensively and learned how to grind out close games.
“It’s not difficult to recognize how dominant Villanova has been since we’ve been in the league,” coach Chris Mack said. “We beat them once and it took a great effort that night to do it. The same thing’s going to apply to tomorrow if we’re going to win.”
Xavier’s one win in the series was a classic. The fifth-ranked Musketeers knocked off No. 1 Villanova 90-83 at the Cintas Center during the 2015-16 season. Xavier is coming off a 102-90 win over Seton Hall at the Cintas Center on Wednesday that featured Trevon Bluiett’s 37-point performance , an indication he’s fully recovered from injuries earlier in the season.
Whoever wins on Saturday will be in position to win the league title. A Xavier victory would put the Musketeers up by 2 1/2 games. A Villanova win would tighten the race and give the Wildcats a 2-0 head-to-head advantage.
“We want to be at the top of the league,” O’Mara said. “That’s been our goal since we got here. Obviously we haven’t reached that yet. We have the most potential this year to reach it if we can take care of business.”