With No. 6 Villanova and No. 12 Creighton not only headed to the NCAA tournament but in the process of fighting to earn protected (top four) seeds, the Big East has at least two teams who will hear their names called on Selection Sunday. The question at this juncture in the season is who else will be able to earn a trip, with Providence and Xavier being two of the teams in consideration.
That made their meeting in Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon one of high importance, with the winner taking over sole possession of third place in the conference standings. And if Xavier was to defend its home floor and end a three-game losing streak, the Musketeers had to defend better than they did in the first meeting. In Providence’s 81-72 win on January 25 the Friars shot 64% from the field in the second half, with Bryce Cotton scoring 25 points and dishing out seven assists (no turnovers) and LaDontae Henton adding 23 points and 11 rebounds.
Given the importance of Cotton to the Providence attack he’s clearly the player teams need to slow down in order to beat Providence, and that was the primary goal for Xavier in the rematch. And thanks in large part to Semaj Christon, who wasn’t asked to defend Cotton much in the first meeting, the Musketeers were able to accomplish that goal.
Christon limited Cotton (seven assists, three turnovers) to nine points on 4-for-11 shooting and forced two critical turnovers down the stretch as Xavier beat the Friars 59-53. An exciting athlete who can score from just about anywhere on the floor while also setting up his teammates, Christon also has the length needed to be a pest on the defensive end and that attribute was critical in the defending of Cotton.
Providence was able to hang around, even leading for a significant portion of the first half, with Josh Fortune being the primary reason why. Fortune finished the game with 17 points, scoring 12 in the first 20 minutes, and if the Friars are to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid they need Fortune to be less deferential offensively. He doesn’t have to score at the level of a Cotton or Henton (14 points vs. Xavier) but the sophomore has to be a credible threat. And given how well Fortune can shoot the basketball, that means no longer passing up quality looks.
But in the second half Xavier performed better on both ends of the floor, limiting Providence to 32% shooting while turning the ball over just once after committing seven turnovers in the first half. With Christon leading the way on the perimeter and a front court with multiple options (Justin Martin and Matt Stainbrook scored 13 apiece on Saturday), Chris Mack’s team has the talent needed to return to the NCAA tournament after missing out a season ago.
But that will only happen if they defend consistently. An issue in the first meeting between these two teams, Xavier had no trouble doing so in the rematch. And as a result, the Musketeers find themselves in sole possession of third place in the Big East.