February 05, 2016

(AP) - Fifth-ranked Xavier is trying to top one of its best regular seasons with a few things it's never done at tournament time. First, it has to get that defense fixed.

The Musketeers have the No. 2 seed behind Villanova heading into their conference tournament opener against seventh-seeded Marquette on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The 26 wins match the most in school history, along with the 2007-08 team that reached the Elite Eight.

Their No. 5 ranking matches the best in school history. They've been ranked in the Top 10 for 13 consecutive weeks, by far the best run in school history. All of that came after the Musketeers (26-4) were overlooked in most preseason polls and prognostications.

''The only thing that's been surprising is our ability to handle success,'' coach Chris Mack said. ''And I think that's really difficult with young people. It's difficult with old people too, probably. Just being able to come to practice every day and not rest on their record or feel like we can take a day off - that's been a little surprising because that's not always the case.''

Xavier hasn't won the Big East tournament or reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, but this team has all the pieces on offense to make a few more breakthroughs.

And Mack is tinkering with that offense to try to help the defense down the stretch. Xavier has given up 83, 90 and 93 points in its last three games, winning two of them. The Musketeers like to push the pace on offense - they're among the fasted in the nation at getting off a shot - and Mack would like them to be a little more selective.

Xavier ranked among the Big East's leaders in defense earlier in the season, but has slipped in the rankings as the combined scores in their games have climbed. That's a concern heading into a matchup with a Marquette team that shot 54.7 percent in a 90-82 loss in Cincinnati on Feb. 6.

The Golden Eagles also put up a 55.8 field-goal percentage Wednesday, hitting 5 of 10 from 3-point range and 38 of 43 from the free-throw line in a 101-93 first-round win over St. John's. Since joining the Big East in 2005-06, Marquette is the only program to reach the quarterfinals of the tourney each year.

''We talked to our team all year long that the best teams in the country hang their hats on the defensive end,'' Mack said. ''I think this team can score with anybody in the country, but I don't think we can outscore anybody in the country on a given night. I'd like our team not to learn that the hard way.''

Mack's club may have to contain Henry Ellenson to earn a sixth straight win over the Golden Eagles. The Big East freshman of the year leads the league with 9.9 rebounds and ranks third with 17.1 points per game.

Ellenson finished with 27 points and 14 boards against the Red Storm, while JaJuan Johnson added a career-high 23 points and Haanif Cheatham scored 19. Ellenson has totaled 42 points in the two meetings with Xavier.

Marquette (20-12), however, has allowed an average of 91 points and a 54.9 field-goal percentage in its last four games. That doesn't bode well facing a Xavier team that ranks in the top 20 nationally with 81 per game.

"We know we'll have to be at our best in order to beat them," Golden Eagles coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "We feel very fortunate to have that opportunity."

Marquette has dropped 15 of its past 17 games against top 10 opponents.

You May Like