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X-Men survive

WASHINGTON — So Xavier lived up to its No. 3 seeding, after all. The Musketeers, down by 11 early in the second half and seemingly in danger of an early ouster, rallied to beat Georgia, 73-61, this afternoon at the Verizon Center.

Xavier didn't panic when it fell behind by double digits. They dug in defensively, began making some three-pointers, and continued to take the ball inside against the Bulldogs. The officials certainly didn't hurt: Xavier, one of the top free-throw shooting teams in the country, made 25 free throws in the final 15 minutes of the game. The Musketeers went to the basket and created contact, and Georgia didn't seem to get a call in the second half. Xavier outscored the Dawgs from the line, 27-3.

But in the end, Xavier was the better team.  They're the only team in the country with six players who average in double figures. They don't rely on any one player to score, which makes it easier not to press when they get behind. Josh Duncan, Xavier's 6-9 senior forward, had 20 points and eight rebounds and was 11 of 14 from the foul line.

All in all, it was an impressive win by Xavier, which looked out of sorts early but justified its No. 12 national ranking. The Musketeers will face the winner of the Purdue-Baylor game in Saturday's second round and could be headed for a showdown with Duke next week in the regional semifinals in Phoenix.

"Upset" in the Making

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As I said an hour ago, that's not your typical No. 14 seed. Georgia, riding the momentum of its SEC Tournament championship, raced to a 35-26 halftime lead over Xavier in the first round of the NCAAs here at the Verizon Center.

Xavier certainly doesn't look like a third seed, either. Georgia extended its defense and gave the Musketeers fits on the perimeter. Drew Lavender, Xavier's 5-7 senior point guard, had an especially bad first half, shooting 2 of 7 and seeming out of rhythm against the Bulldog's stifling defense.

Xavier is capable of coming back in the second half. They beat a lot of good teams this year in non-conference games. But Georgia is loose and inspired and has three terrific veteran guards in Sundiata Gaines, Terrance Woodbury (10 points in the first half) and Billy Humphrey.

And to think, there was talk that Georgia head coach Dennis Felton might be fired before the Dawgs made their SEC tourney run. Oh, that older fellow sitting next to Felton on Georgia's bench? It's associate head coach Pete Herrmann, the 1966 Bishop Timon graduate who is in his 26th season as a Division I coach.

It's not looking good early for the A-10. Temple is down at halftime to Michigan State, 35-26 -- the identical halftime score as Xavier-Georgia.

X-Men in NCAAs

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The NCAA Tournament gets under way in about a half hour here at the Verizon Center, when Xavier takes on Georgia in a first-round game.

I can't imagine Xavier is too happy with this matchup. The Musketeers went 14-2 in the Atlantic 10. They're ranked 12th in the country in both polls. And their reward is a game against the SEC tourney champions. Yes, Georgia had a losing record in the regular season. But any team that can win three games in two days in one of the top leagues in America -- as Georgia did after the tornado scrambled the SEC tourney last weeked -- is better than a typical No. 14 seed.

Xavier has the toughest test of any No. 3 seed in the first round. They're an eight-point underdog. The other three 3's are all favored by double digits. What a coincidence. The other three third seeds -- Stanford, Wisconsin and  Louisville -- are all from major conferences. Somehow, I doubt the committee would have had a BCS school play the SEC champ as a No. 3 seed.

No team hates the "mid-major" label more than Xavier. The Musketeers even refused one of those mid-major player of the week awards early this season (Drew Lavender won it), because they consider themselves a major program. They're right. Xavier has been to seven of the last eight tournaments. They made the Elite Eight in 2004. They lost in overtime in the second round last year to Ohio State, which went on to the national championship game against Florida.

Xavier is a big-time program and determined to prove it. They're also carrying the banner of the A-10, which used to put four and five teams in the Big Dance on a regular basis but has been sliding in recent years. The A-10 got three teams in this year (St. Joseph's and Temple are the others), but had two of the better teams that missed out (UMass and Dayton).

It's been easy to forget since St. Bonaventure hit the skids, but the A-10 is our biggest link to the basketball big-time. Bona is a Western New york school. Syracuse has the Niagara Falls kids, but they're just not close enough. So it's good for Bona when the A-10 does well, and it raises the stakes. When you have three teams in the NCAA Tournament, it should be a good recruiting tool. Bona needs to raise the level of its program soon. There's no excuse to be this bad in the A-10. Look what happened to Baylor.They had a bigger scandal than Bona in 2003, and they've bounced back in a hurry.

At the NCAA Tourney

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Greetings from the NCAA Tournament's West Regional. All four games that will be played here at the Verizon Center on Thursday are part of the West bracket. That's us down in the right-hand corner of your bracket sheet. You'll also find two programs that have bounced back from major NCAA violations in 2003: Georgia and Baylor. There was a third program that got into hot water that year and shared the national shame spotlight: St. Bonaventure.

Anyway, Baylor is a very talented team and can easily knock off Purdue. I think all the Big Ten teams are vulnerable this year. That conference simply isn't that good. Purdue is another surprise team, but they're not a worthy sixth seed. Scott Drew, who took over at Baylor after the scandal, has put together a deep and talented roster in a short period of time.

Six players average between 8.7 and 14.9 points a game, led by 6-1 junior Curtis Jerrells. The Bears have another terrific little man in 5-10 Tweety Carter (love that name!). Carter averages 9.6 points a game, but he's averaging 13.3 in his last nine. Carter was the first McDonald's all-American brought in by Drew, who you'll remember as an assistant under his dad, Homer, at Valparaiso.

The Bears have added so much talent that Aaron Bruce, who led them in scoring as a freshman three years ago, is now coming off the bench.

I'll have more on the Baylor story in tomorrow's column, along with my annual bracket opus in the News' special NCAA Tournament section. I'll be reporting on the games in Washington, D.C. through Saturday. I'll be monitoring Duke's 7 p.m. game with Belmont, just in case a No. 2 seed goes down for the first time in seven years. Surely, you recall Duke going down in the opening game last year in Buffalo.

Hoops Du Jour

I'm currently in Albany for the MAAC Tournament. I'll be weighing in on the developments on our college blog -- Campus Watch -- as long as one or more of our teams is still alive for an NCAA Tournament berth. In an hour or so, the Canisius women will take on Marist, the nation's 24th ranked women's team, in the quarterfinals. Marist went to the Sweet 16 last year, so it would be major upset if they won.

Watch This Kid

Niagara's Charron Fisher is the nation's leading scorer, and a top candidate for MAAC player of the year. But the player who really caught my eye in Friday night's game was Canisius freshman Tomas Vazquez-Simmons. Vazquez-Simmons, a 6-7 forward, was all over the floor. He's the most athletic big man the Griffs have had since the Barley-Wise-Meeks days. He fouled out with 10 minutes left, but still had a huge impact on the game. He's smooth for his size. He handles the ball and is a decent passer for a big man. He's also the team's best foul shooter. Vazquez-Simmons is a true freshman who only turned 18 a few months ago. So he has big upside. I think he'll be an all-league caliber player next year if he continues to improve.

Home At Last

The UB men's basketball team will play its first home game in six weeks Saturday night against Akron, one of the top contenders in the MAC. Akron is 11-3, including an 83-81 loss in double overtime last week at Dayton, which is ranked 17th in the nation by the AP and is 6th in the RPI rankings.

Akron went 26-7 a year ago, although the Zips were snubbed by both the NCAA and NIT selection commitees. They're always a good measuring stick for Reggie Witherspoon's team, which is 6-7 and 0-1 in the MAC. The Bulls need to be competitive at home against the league's top teams. UB's talent level has slipped considerably since the 2005-06 class departed. It's time for the current group to start showing progress. Witherspoon is a good teacher, but you can do only so much with inferior talent. If the Bulls have another subpar year in the MAC, it'll be time to ask some serious questions about his ability as a recruiter.

Our leagues

You can be sure that Niagara won't be relegated to a play-in if the Purple Eagles get to the NCAA Tournament this year. The Metro Atlantic is currently ranked 15th in the RPIs, so there's virtually no chance the league's representative will be shipped to the play-in game, as Niagara was a year ago.

The MAAC was 25th among the leagues last year because the league had so few quality wins in non-conference play. This year, there have been several significant wins, including Niagara's win at St. John's. Siena beat Stanford and played Syracuse close. Rider beat Penn State and Rutgers. Manhattan beat Pepperdine and Iona beat Western Michigan.

All three of our men's Division I leagues have higher RPIs than they finished with a year ago. The Atlantic 10 is eighth. They were 10th last season. Rhode Island is ranked 25th in the AP poll this week, the first time a Jim Baron-coached team has been nationally ranked. URI beat Providence and Syracuse of the Big East. Dayton beat Louisville and could strike a big blow for the league when it plays unbeaten Pittsburgh on Saturday. Xavier, which is 18th in the RPIs, has beaten Cincinnati and Indiana. UMass has wins over Boston College and Syracuse.

The Mid-American is 12th in the RPIs, up two spots from last year. Ohio has wins over Maryland and St. John's. Miami of Ohio beat Illinois. Central Michigan beat Michigan (and John Beilein). Bowling Green beat Cincinnati. Looks like another challenging year for UB in the MAC.

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