On Dec. 9, 2011, the clear odds-on favorite to win this weekend’s Atlantic 10 tournament in Atlantic City, N.J., was Xavier.
Then, Dec. 10 happened.
A crosstown rivalry game between the then-No. 8 Musketeers and Cincinnati turned into an ugly brawl at the end of a lopsided Xavier victory.
The Musketeers won the game, but there’s no question they lost something following the brawl. Once undefeated, they lost five of their next six games and never looked the same in a season that looked to be extremely bright for the program.
Now, as it seems, Xavier may need to win this weekend’s tournament – or at least win two games – in order to even make or be considered for the NCAA tournament that it was considered to automatically make just three months ago.
Their tournament weekend begins tonight at 9 p.m., as the No. 3 seed Musketeers (19-11, 10-6 A-10) play No. 6 seed and last year’s tournament runner-up Dayton at Boardwalk Hall. The Flyers (20-11, 9-7 A-10) beat No. 11 seed George Washington handily, 67-50, on Tuesday night in the first round to advance to Atlantic City.
Dayton and Xavier played each other twice this season, as each defended their home courts in a season split. On Jan. 21, the Flyers easily beat the Musketeers, 87-72, before falling on the road in overtime to them on Feb. 18, 86-83.
The winner of that game will play the winner of No. 2 Saint Louis/No. 7 La Salle on Saturday afternoon in the semifinals.
Billikens push for auto-bid
If top-seeded Temple falters this weekend, it may just be the Billikens (24-6, 12-4 A-10) that claim an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which would be their first appearance since 2000. But they probably won’t need the automatic qualifier to make it.
Since falling to Massachusetts on Jan. 28, SLU is 8-1 in its last nine games. It rebounded well from a late-season loss to bottom feeder Rhode Island on Feb. 25, as it claimed victory over Xavier and Duquesne to gain some momentum heading into this weekend’s tournament.
The Billikens and Explorers played only once this season, as SLU came out on top, 59-51, on Feb. 11, which ended La Salle’s 11-game winning streak at home.
For the Explorers (21-11, 9-7 A-10), they feature a guard-heavy offense that will help up speed up the tempo, but will also be susceptible to a disadvantage inside. That’s where Billikens forward Dwayne Evans took advantage in the earlier season matchup, when he pulled down 13 rebounds including six on the offensive glass.
Following a tough stretch in February in which La Salle lost five out of six, it’s on a three-game winning streak heading into tonight’s tilt, including a first round triumph over No. 10 seed Richmond on Tuesday night.
Bonnies face St. Joseph’s
On the other end of the bracket, No. 4 seed St. Bonaventure and No. 5 seed Saint Joseph’s will go to battle on Friday.
The two also squared off last Wednesday in one of the most entertaining games of the A-10 season. In a double overtime thriller, the Bonnies used 32 points and 14 rebounds from A-10 Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson to come out on top of the Hawks, 98-93.
The Bonnies (17-11, 10-6 A-10) lost their regular season finale to La Salle that ended their four-game winning streak, but enter today’s matchup on a bye and with plenty of rest. Behind Nicholson, Demetrius Conger provides depth in the frontcourt with his 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
For Saint Joseph’s (20-12, 9-7 A-10), it’s coming off of a 80-64 victory over No. 12 seed Charlotte in the first round on Tuesday night and will likely need a deep run in the tournament to earn consideration or the Big Dance. The winner of the matchup will go up against the winner of No. 8 seed UMass and the top-seeded Owls in Saturday’s semifinal.
The championship game will be played at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon at Boardwalk Hall, which will be televised nationally on CBS. The winner of the tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which begins on Thursday.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.