By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - This is a game that Xavier has looked forward to for quite some time.
Troy State's Ben Fletcher runs drills during practice Thursday afternoon at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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Even during the Atlantic 10 regular-season championship run and coinciding 16-game winning streak, Xavier players knew the NCAA Tournament presented a unique opportunity to move the program to a higher level.
"We've been waiting for this for a long time," said Dedrick Finn. "It's a chance for people to notice us. It's a chance to get our names up there with Duke, North Carolina all the big-time teams. If we go out and play like the way we know how, we can take down the teams that are seeded higher than us or that are favored over us."
Xavier has never advanced past the regional semifinals and reached that level just once, in 1990. Last season, Xavier defeated Hawaii in the first round before losing to Final Four qualifier Oklahoma in the second round. That loss is part of the motivation for this team to go deeper in the tournament than ever before.
Xavier gets a chance to take a first step toward school history when the Musketeers face Troy State (26-5) in the first round of the tournament at 7:25 p.m. today. The winner moves on to Sunday's game against the winner of the Maryland-North Carolina Wilmington game played after Xavier's game at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
Expectations have been high all season for Xavier, with phrases such as Elite Eight and Final Four mentioned before the season even began. Those discussions happened because David West returned for his senior year to join junior small forward Romain Sato, forming one of the most prolific duos in the nation. Together they average 38.4 points and 19.1 rebounds.
Those expectations haven't gone down much as Xavier entered the NCAAs with the No. 12 ranking in the nation and a third seed in the South region.
Xavier head coach Thad Matta directs his team during practice Thursday afternoon.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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"We won the A-10 regular season," said Keith Jackson. "This is another one of our goals, to get to the Final Four. We just have to go out there and give it everything we have."
The national ranking is Xavier's highest ever to end the regular season, and the No. 3 seed is also the highest in school history.
"This is an opportunity to put a good end on a great season," Lionel Chalmers said. "We're not finished. We have goals that we still have to reach. It would be a great thing to make some noise in this tournament."
Three seeds are usually heavy favorites against No. 14 seeds, which is what Troy State earned after winning the Atlantic Sun Championship.
A close call Thursday for Marquette, the three seed in the Midwest that barely got by Holy Cross 72-68, caught Xavier's attention. The Musketeers want to get out to an early lead against Troy State, not just to send a message to the Trojans, but to get the Tournament run off to a good start.
"We want to come out and don't give Troy State any confidence," West said. "We want to impose our will on them."
This is Troy State's first NCAA appearance, but the Musketeers don't expect the Trojans to just be happy to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. With athletic players like senior Ben Fletcher and Rob Lewin, coach Don Maestri's team will press Xavier throughout the game, trying to force turnovers for easy baskets.
But there is no denying that Xavier has more overall talent with A-10 third-team selection Anthony Myles down low with West and A-10 all-rookie guard Dedrick Finn teaming with Lionel Chalmers in the backcourt.
"Xavier has a lot more size than us," Maestri said, referring to West and Myles, each 6 feet 9, 240-plus pounds. "That's the type of size we don't have. Competing on the boards will be a big job for us. Those two big post guys will cause us problems."
Craig Lovell stands 6-9, 210-pounds and is the tallest player on the TSU roster, but he logs just 13.9 minutes a game. Of the regulars, the 6-7 Lewin is the tallest.
Should Xavier advance tonight, the Musketeers know they'll see more formidable competition. But this year, they say they're ready to make more of an impact.
"We're definitely looking forward to it," Chalmers said. "Last year we went out early so we're definitely here to make some noise."
Xavier vs. Troy State
Tipoff: 7:25 p.m. today, Gaylord Entertainment Center (18,500), Nashville, Tenn.
Records: XU (25-5), Troy State (26-5).
Radio: WLW-AM (700).
TV: Ch. 12, 7.
Series: First meeting.
Coach: Thad Matta (51-11, second season; 75-19 overall).
Coach: Don Maestri (357-240, 21st season; 357-240 overall).
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