Published March 02, 2010
CINCINNATI (AP) — Before Xavier took the court for its opening Atlantic 10 game on Jan. 7, first-year coach Chris Mack reminded his Musketeers about what stood between them and a fourth straight regular-season title.
"We were at La Salle for the first game of the conference season and I wrote on the board: '640 minutes to win a championship,'" Mack said. "And what seemed like a very large number — wow, a lot of games — is down to 80 minutes."
And two teams.
No. 20 Temple and No. 25 Xavier are tied atop the league with two games to go. They don't play each other again, so they could wind up sharing the championship.
It would be a breakthrough for both.
Temple and Xavier have the top all-time winning percentages in A-10 play, but have followed different paths in recent years. Xavier (21-7, 12-2) is trying to become only the second team in league history to win four straight — Massachusetts ran off a record five in a row from 1992-96.
The Musketeers made it a two-team race by beating Richmond 78-76 in double overtime on Sunday, knocking the Spiders out of a three-way tie. They'll win at least a share of the title if they win at Fordham (0-14) and at home against St. Bonaventure (6-8).
"Being that we won (against Richmond), we don't have to look at the other scores and see who's winning," senior center Jason Love said. "We're in control of our destiny."
The title would mean a lot to Temple (24-5, 12-2), which hasn't finished with the league's best record in the regular season since 1999-00. The Owls are quite adept at winning the A-10 tournament — they did it in 2000, '01, '08 and '09. The regular season has been something else.
"I think it's very important," senior guard Ryan Brooks said. "It's something we haven't been able to do since I've been here. We've been fortunate enough to win in the Atlantic 10 tournament for two straight years, but to win the outright championship in a season that's so battle-tested, it would definitely make a statement going into the A-10 conference tournament."
It's a bit of a surprise that these team are the last two standing.
Dayton was picked to win the title because it returned so many players from a strong team. The Flyers have lost a lot of close games, fading out of contention, while Temple and Xavier got better as the season went along.
The young Musketeers — Love is the lone senior — dropped close games early against Marquette, Baylor, Butler and Wake Forest. They've grown during the conference season, though, learning how to close out teams.
"When we get in tight situations, being down with only so much time to go or up with a minute left, we've gotten better and more mature," Love said. "It's just that trust factor. Not that we didn't have that, but we didn't have that continuity with each other. Everybody was kind of feeling each other out for the first months of the season."
The Owls have been the biggest surprise. Picked to finished fifth, they've put together their best season since Hall of Fame coach John Chaney was ending his career in 2001.
By returning to the Top 25 and the top of the A-10, the Owls have gone a long way in restoring their prominence.
"I think it's more an assumption they understand how important all these games are and how winning the Atlantic 10 means a lot to them and the program and the university," coach Fran Dunphy said. "I don't think you have to tell them too much. I think the reality is we just kind of go game to game."
The Owls beat the Musketeers 77-72 on Jan. 20 in Philadelphia, the only game between the two during the season. If they finished with identical records, the Owls would get the top seed in the conference tournament because of that head-to-head win.
Temple would seem to have a bigger challenge getting through the final week unscathed. The Owls play at Saint Louis (10-4) on Wednesday, a game that's expected to be dominated by defense. Xavier knows firsthand what it's like — the Musketeers went to Saint Louis and had to rally in the second half for a 73-71 win on Feb. 24.
"They had a 'whiteout' for us," Love said. "It's a tough place to play. They're a real good team, a young team that's really clicking. It's going to be tough for them."
The Musketeers have that game at last-place Fordham, then close out at home, where they've won 31 straight Atlantic 10 games, the second-longest streak in league history. Even if they win both, they might have to settle for a share of the title.
"Xavier is a great team," said Brooks, who scored 22 points in the win over the Musketeers. "I think they were waiting for us to get knocked off so they could move into the top spot, but our focus is one game at a time and seeing what happens when the conference tournament rolls around."
AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.