NCAA BK

Desperate Xavier takes on Butler in Big East tourney

Butler's headed for the NCAA Tournament, regardless of what happens in the Big East tournament.

On the other hand, there might not be a team on the so-called bubble that needs a win Thursday night more than the Bulldogs' opponent.

Call it a matchup of certainty against desperation at Madison Square Garden when No. 18 Butler takes on Xavier, which seemed like a cinch for the NCAA Tournament as recently as a month ago.

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Then they lost dynamic point guard Edward Sumner to a season-ending knee injury, explosive scorer Trevon Bluiett (ankle) for a couple of games and center Tyrique Jones (concussion). That turned the Musketeers into a fragile team.

Six straight losses later, Xavier (20-12) went from lock to major question. Not even two consecutive wins over lowly DePaul, including a 75-64 decision late Wednesday night in a first-round matchup, can promote any kind of sure feeling about the Musketeers' candidacy.

"I don't really know how to answer that question," Xavier coach Chris Mack said about possibly building momentum by beating the 9-23 Blue Demons. "I just know that we've got a big challenge tomorrow. Our guys understand how good Butler is, the type of year they've had."

The Bulldogs (23-7) have played with metronomic consistency, save for a stretch in late January and early February during which they dropped three of four. They are the one team in the country that can claim to have the number of conference and defending national champion Villanova; the Bulldogs swept the Wildcats in the season series.

Not even a 70-64 loss to Seton Hall on Saturday could keep Butler from finishing second in the conference, even if it spoiled its Senior Day. It didn't keep Chris Holtmann from winning the conference's Coach of the Year or forward Andrew Chrabascz from earning first-team All-Big East honors.

Mack's feelings about the Bulldogs have likely been shaped by watching them sweep the season series. Butler rallied for an 83-78 win Jan. 14 in Indianapolis, going 29 of 32 at the foul line in the second half and scoring 58 points after halftime. Then the Bulldogs took the rematch, 88-79, on Feb. 26 in Cincinnati, behind 25 points from reserve Kelan Martin.

But one thing the Bulldogs haven't done since joining the league in 2013 is win a Big East tourney game. The loss to Seton Hall, which ended the game with a 23-7 spurt, seemed really galling to Holtmann.

"Seton Hall got to more loose balls than we did and made some threes when we got scrambling defensively in the second half," Holtmann said. "Disappointing that we couldn't get it done."

While Butler wants to spend more than one night in New York City this March, the Musketeers are hoping the old adage that it's hard to beat a team three times in a season is correct. If it is, they will reach Friday night's semifinal round and perhaps the tournament they appeared destined for before their injury-aided slide.

"They want to play in the dance," Mack said. "They want to continue their season. So there's a lot of pressure."