The TD Bank North Garden in Boston, Massachusetts is the scene for a Sweet Sixteen matchup between Sean Miller’s four-seed Xavier Musketeers (27-7) and Jamie Dixon’s one-seed Pittsburgh Panthers (30-4).
Xavier looked ripe for the picking after limping to the finish line, going 5-5 in the month prior to the NCAA Tournament, and a trip to Boise for the opening round seemed to doom the X-Men for an early-round loss.
But since then, the Musketeers have regained their swagger with wins over Portland State (by a score of 77-59) and Wisconsin (60-49). Xavier now has a neutral-court record of 6-2 and is 23-2 when holding teams to 70 points or less.
After losing in the opening round of the Big East soiree, the Panthers triumphed over East Tennessee State (72-62) and Oklahoma State (84-76). They're 27-2 when they outrebound opponents.
Sean Miller knows a thing or two about Pittsburgh basketball. After leading the Panthers to NCAA appearances in '88, '89, and '91, Miller was named to the university’s All-Centennial Team. He left campus number one all-time in assists (744), though he since has been surpassed by Brandon Knight (784).
Current Panther point guard LeVance Fields is third with 633.
Pittsburgh holds a 3-2 advantage in the all-time series. The last time the two schools faced off, Pitt took a 94-76 decision at the Puerto Rico Shootout during the '98-'99 season.
The Muskies have earned berths in the NCAA Tournament eight of the previous nine seasons. Xavier is one of only nine schools to make multiple Elite Eight appearances in the last five years (UNC, UCLA, Kansas, and Memphis have three each; Louisville, Texas, Florida, UConn, and, of course, Xav have 2 apiece).
Xavier has now reached the 25-win plateau for the third consecutive year and 10th time in school history.
This is Pittsburgh’s 21st NCAA Tournament appearance and fifth Sweet Sixteen showing in the last eight years; only Duke and Kansas with six have been "sweeter."
However, the Panthers have not advanced to the Elite Eight since the tournament expanded in ‘79. One more win for Dixon’s crew would tie them for a school record with 31 victories. Pitt advanced to the Elite Eight in ‘74 and the national semifinals in ‘41.
Xavier is ranked 200th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio with a hideous 0.9 dimes per giveaway. That's a stat that must be driving Miller crazy.
Such is life while platooning the still-in-grooming freshman point guard Terrell Holloway with sophomore Dante Jackson. The two-headed court general may well be the culprit when the Xavier offense bogs down.
But hey, Musketeer fans, here's some good news: Jackson and Holloway combined for nine assists, six steals, and and just three turnovers in the first two rounds.
The Panthers' Fields will present a formidable task for the Xavier two. The senior averages 7.6 assists per game yet just a paltry 2.0 miscues.
It's gotta be the Musketeers' C.J. Anderson. After amassing 13 double-figure games in points, he made like an H.G. Wells protagonist and became rather invisble: He had zero vs. Temple and just three and four in two separate games vs. Dayton.
The senior forward, who Miller has referred to as the team’s "glue," returned to form with a 14-point performance against Portland State and eight rebounds against the Badgers.
The game will provide a host of great individual matchups.
Sam Young against Derrick Brown should be a battle of two titans. Brown averaged 11 points in the first two games and is capable of crashing the boards; as a freshman, he grabbed 16 boards in a first-round matchup with BYU. Young has 14 20-point games this season and is averaging 18 points and six boards per game.
Jason Love, at 6'9" and 255 lbs., will draw the daunting task of having to slow down 6'7", 265-lb. DeJuan Blair. Love has only averged 6 PPG and 5 RPG, but Blair will have to respect this opponent. Jason is no Hasheem Thabeet that can be used like a rag doll to mop up the floor; he is active on the glass, as even though he doesn’t always pull it down, he at least keeps it alive for teammates. Meanwhile, Blair averages 15 points and 12 rebounds per game.
At 6'3", 195 pounds, Pittsburgh’s Jermaine Dixon will have to try to neutralize Xavier’s 6'6", 226-pound B.J. Raymond. The Mustketeers will need Raymond to exploit his size advantage and deft shooting touch. Dixon will have his hands full.
If Xavier has problems slowing down Fields or Young, don’t be surprised if Raymond draws the assignment in the second half. Miller has used the senior as his "glove" for the opponent’s hot hand.
Xavier outrebounded Wisconsin 34-28. No easy task.
Meanwhile, Pitt relies on their board work to win games.
Buckle up! Turbulence ahead! We could see a war in the paint tomorrow.
Pitt will not have an answer for Raymond. The senior is capable of a playing at a heroic level, as he did in his 32-point outburst at Auburn, 24-point showing at Virginia, and 21-point offering at LSU.
Xavier will win the war on the boards, and as long as Raymond hits from the outside, the Muskies will make consecutive trips to the Elite Eight.