Xavier has quietly been one of college basketball’s most successful programs over the past quarter-century. There was nothing quiet, though, about the way the Musketeers worked their way into this week’s rankings.
After entering the Top 25 for the first time this season, No. 23 Xavier looks to avoid a letdown Wednesday night when it hosts Oakland.
The Musketeers (4-1) toil in relative obscurity in the mid-major Atlantic 10, but they have recorded at least 20 wins in 20 of the last 25 seasons. In 2006-07, they finished 25-9 and took top-seeded Ohio State to overtime in the second round of the NCAA tournament before falling 78-71.
Xavier came up short in that contest, but shocked another Big Ten power Saturday night, beating then-No. 8 Indiana 80-65 in the final of the Chicago Invitational Challenge.
C.J. Anderson and B.J. Raymond each had 19 points for the Musketeers, who may have gotten their biggest lift from the defense of Stanley Burrell. The senior guard managed only six points - matching his season low - but held Hoosiers freshman phenom Eric Gordon to 20 points and 4-for-12 field-goal shooting.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a player than I am of Stan tonight,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “In terms of Stan’s growth, there would have been a time earlier in his career when he would have been more one-sided on offense. To see the transformation in him, in his last year, to be able to do that defensively means the world to our team.”
Senior point guard Drew Lavender earned MVP honors at the Chicago Invitational Challenge, averaging 11.8 points and 4.8 assists during the tournament. He had 13 points, six assists and two steals in the championship game.
At 10.8 points per game, Lavender ranks only fifth in scoring this season for the Musketeers, who are led by Anderson and Raymond with 13.6 points apiece.
The upset of Indiana brought Xavier into the Top 25 for the first time since last Dec. 4, when it was ranked 24th after a 6-1 start.
The Musketeers appear to have a good shot at staying ranked for awhile, as this contest opens a four-game homestand. Xavier, which plays six of its next seven games at Cintas Center, has won 10 straight on its home court since a 68-67 loss to Bucknell last Dec. 20.
However, it might be a mistake to take the Golden Grizzlies (2-3) lightly. Oakland nearly pulled off an upset of its own against a ranked Big Ten school Saturday, staying within single digits of then-No. 10 Michigan State for the entire game before falling 75-71.
“We’re disappointed we couldn’t finish this,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “Michigan State sets the standard for college basketball in this state. But that’s what makes a great program and a great team. Their players step up and do what it takes.”
The Golden Grizzlies hung with the Spartans despite the continued absence of starting guard Erik Kangas, who averaged 12.9 points in 2006-07 but has not played since the season opener due to a shoulder injury. His status is uncertain for this contest.
Without Kangas, junior forward Derick Nelson and senior guard Brandon Cassise have been the focal points of the offense. Nelson is averaging 18.8 points per game, while Cassise is adding 17.8 and has already made 19 3-pointers - five of them against Michigan State.