Two years ago, Xavier’s Semaj Christon and NC State’s T.J. Warren were roommates.
On Tuesday night, they were rivals.
Christon and Warren lived and played together for one season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, notching a 33-1 record and a National Prep Championship.
The NCAA Tournament’s First Four game in Dayton Tuesday night put the two sophomores on the same court again, but on a bigger stage. The winner earned a No. 12 seed in the Midwest Regional and a second-round matchup with Saint Louis in Orlando on Thursday. (This story went to press before the play-in game started.)
Warren, the ACC Player of the Year, set the school record for the most 20-point games in one season (29), averaging 24.8 points per game. Christon, a first-team All-Big East selection, averaged 17.1 points per game during the regular season for the Musketeers and scored in double figures in 21 straight games heading into the First Four matchup.
Xavier entered the contest on short rest, just four days after Friday’s Big East Tournament semifinal loss to Creighton. It was Xavier’s first “play-in” game since a 1983 opening round loss to Alcorn State at UD Arena. Though Xavier coach Chris Mack wryly joked that, “everyone’s been on me to make sure Xavier plays in Dayton,” he kept the First Four bid in perspective.
“There are about 280 teams that wish they were in our shoes right now and they’re not,” Mack said during the team’s post-tournament draw press conference. “I’ve never, ever felt it was like a birthright, never felt like it was just an automatic. I know our fans may feel that way. It’s tough.”
Xavier’s draw was fitting for a team that has been forced to play beyond low expectations all season.
At the beginning of this year, after moving into the Big East, the Musketeers were picked to finish seventh in the conference. But they tied for third in the Big East (10-8 conference record) and boosted their tournament resume with quality regular-season wins against Cincinnati and Creighton.
After a strong December and January, Xavier finished the season 6-9, lost starting center Matt Stainbrook to a strained MCL on March 3 and stumbled into the Big East Tournament. The Musketeers pulled out a 68-65 win over Marquette in the tournament quarterfinals. The next night, Xavier lost 86-78 to Creighton in a game that could have helped the Musketeers bypass the First Four. Instead, the loss left Xavier squarely on the bubble and anxiously waiting on Selection Sunday.
“I was nervous,” Christon said. “I really didn’t want to watch.”
With the exception of last season, when Xavier missed the postseason for the first time in eight years, the Musketeers have become regulars in the NCAA Tournament. They have made the Big Dance in 12 of the past 14 seasons, with two Elite Eight and six Sweet 16 appearances.
But for all of the Musketeers’ recent NCAA Tournament history, juniors Dee Davis and Justin Martin are the only two players with postseason experience. Senior Isaiah Philmore transferred from Towson in 2011 and Stainbrook transferred from Western Michigan in 2012, meaning neither were on the roster during the Musketeers’ 2012 Sweet 16 run.
“I’ve been working really hard for a lot of years and never got there,” Philmore said. “We came together as a team and did what we did to put us in position to be there, and I’m going to give it my all. I’m just happy to be here. Man, it’s going to be exciting.”
NC State, which earned the last at-large spot in the Tournament, went 3-9 against top 50 teams this season. The Wolfpack’s best win of the year was a 66-63 win over slumping Syracuse in Friday’s ACC Tournament quarterfinals, a day before losing to Duke 75-67 in the tournament semifinals.
The keys for a Xavier win over NC State will be to focus on containing Warren, limiting points in transition and winning the battle on the boards.
Much of that rebounding battle will depend on the health of Stainbrook, Xavier’s leading rebounder. After coming back against Marquette in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, his injury was obvious the next night, where he played just nine minutes against Creighton.
"Matt pulled me out in the hallway and said, ‘Coach, play me as if I'm not injured, if you feel like I can get up and down the floor.’ He goes, 'I'd tear my ACL for this team,’” Mack said. “I don't want him to do that, but it just shows me how much the tournament means to our kids, and we're going to be ready.”
And even with a relative lack of rest and postseason experience, earning a matchup against Saint Louis, with a potential Louisville matchup on the horizon in the third round, could help Xavier regain the tournament swagger of past years.
“I need some more jewelry,” Martin joked. “When this team is locked in, this team is scary good. … We know we can compete with anybody on any given night. This is what traditional Xavier teams live for -- people know you have to watch out for this Xavier team because they can strike at any moment.”