Many thought Xavier would get bullied by the size and strength of the Minnesota front line, but it was the strength of the Musketeers, both physical and mental, that carried them to a 65-54 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Milwaukee.
Despite the size of the Gophers' twin towers, 6-foot-11 Ralph Sampson III and 6-10 Colton Iverson, Xavier's game plan from the start was to pound the ball inside. And that worked -- to a point. The Muskies' front line of Jamel McLean, Jason Love and Kenny Frease got off 19 shots in the paint and drew two fouls each on Sampson, Iverson and Damian Johnson. The problem was, the Xavier trio only made five of those shots. The strength needed to finish at the rim was missing, as Minnesota blocked 10 first-half shots.
Xavier shot only 21 percent in the first half, and with all those shots getting shoved back in their faces, you would think they would be discouraged or abandon the game plan. But they weren't and they didn't.
Xavier came here ready to fight. A column by Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune made sure of that. Souhan claimed the Gophers should be favored, in part because of being battle-tested in the Big Ten and because Xavier has a rookie coach, Chris Mack, going against Tubby Smith, who has won a national championship.
Well, it was the rookie coach who made the key adjustment, albeit a minor one. The plan was still to attack inside, but to work the offense from the inside out.
|Xavier vs. Minnesota|
"We talked to our big guys about if it's one on one in there and you're getting a shot blocked, that's one thing," Mack said. "But when it's one vs. two, you've got to be able to find the perimeter player. Got to be somebody open."
That somebody was mostly Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Jordan Crawford, the transfer from Indiana who caught fire in the second half, hitting seven of 10 shots, including three from beyond the arc for 17 of his team-high 28 points.
Crawford had seven points and Dante Jackson added two 3-pointers in the 15-5 run that blew the game open early in the second half.
Crawford also hit some circus shots in the lane, which was a result of the other halftime adjustment. Mack asked his guards to attack the lane and create for themselves or others.
The first play of the second half, called by Mack at the break, set the tone. Crawford drove down the lane and when help came, he found Love for an easy layup and one.
Minnesota never did find an answer defensively. Xavier shot 14 for 25 for 56 percent in the second half and only had one more shot blocked. The Musketeers also outrebounded the Gophers 50-41.
After the game, Mack's annoyance at the perception of his program came out.
"We're tired of being the Little Engine That Could," Mack said. "We're a really good program. And our kids aren't scared to play anybody. We don't always win, but we're not afraid to compete."
Not sure why anyone would have doubted that, but those who did surely got the message.