Providence Friars Face Tall Task In First-Ever Meeting With Xavier Musketeers

1390450319_providenceLife in the freshly pared-down Big East Conference is suiting the Providence Friars just fine. They’ve won each of their last four games straight up and against the spread, beating the Creighton Bluejays (-4 away) 81-68 on Saturday — Creighton’s only conference loss so far — and following that up with Tuesday’s 65-56 victory over the Butler Bulldogs (+5 away).

Those wins leave Providence at 14-5 straight up and 9-9 against the spread heading into the weekend. Well done, although not quite NCAA championship material — Providence was available at 500-1 on the March Madness futures.

The Friars’ next game is Saturday at noon at The Dunkin’ Donuts Center against the Xavier Musketeers, who are on an incredible roll after covering each of their last nine games to improve to 15-4 straight up and 13-4 against the spread. Only one other team in Division I has 13 wins against the spread right now: the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats. Xavier’s last outing was Monday’s 84-74 win over the DePaul Blue Demons (+5.5 away), who were down 50-32 at halftime but pulled within seven points before the Musketeers salted things away. Xavier is 75-1 to win its first NCAA title after reaching the Elite Eight in 2004 and 2008.

Neither Providence nor Xavier was projected to compete for the Big East title this year, although both teams figured to improve on their 2012-13 campaigns. The Friars in particular were expected to take a step forward under coach Ed Cooley, the 2011 MAAC Coach of the Year with the Fairfield Stags. Cooley is a Providence native who cut his teeth as an assistant under Al Skinner at Boston College, and he led the Friars to the NIT quarterfinals last season, placing a strong emphasis on team discipline.

That emphasis was proven earlier this season when both of Cooley’s star recruits, small forward Brandon Austin and forward Rodney Bullock, were suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. However, the Friars have received excellent results from senior guard Bryce Cotton (20.4 points, 5.8 assists per 40 minutes), the reigning Big East scoring champion, and senior forward Kadeem Batts (12.8 points, 6.9 rebounds/40).

The Musketeers had a lot more room to improve after an unusually poor 2012-13 season (17-14 straight up, 16-11-1 against the spread), their final season in the Atlantic 10 Conference. But they showed signs of life last winter, and they’ve followed through into 2014, led by their outstanding sophomore point guard, Semaj Christon (16.9 points, 4.0 assists/40). If only Christon can improve from the foul line (64.4 percent), he might still find his way into the first round of the 2014 NBA draft.

Xavier has played well enough to sit at No. 28 on Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency charts, third in the Big East behind No. 2 Creighton and the No. 12 Villanova Wildcats. Providence is a little farther down the list at No. 50, but playing against Xavier might be enough to get the Friars the win.

Photo via Twitter/@StadiumJourney