Xavier as experienced as balanced

Xavier Musketeers

Stat Stuffer: G Drew Lavender (10.8 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.6 rpg, 1.1 spg).

Why they could win it: Offensively, Xavier is as balanced as anyone in the country, with five players averaging at least 10.6 points per game. They’re efficient, too, with those five averaging a field goal percentage of 51.1.

What could cost them: You have to wonder if the Musketeers still have last year’s late-game collapse against eventual national runner-up Ohio State in the back of their heads. Coincidentally, in Xavier’s five losses this season, they’ve been simply outlasted, being outscored after halftime by an average of 11.6 points.

Most impressive six-game roll: Jan. 24-Feb. 13: Dayton, 69-43; at UMass, 77-65; La Salle, 75-62; @ Saint Louis, 70-68; St. Joe’s, 76-72; at Charlotte, 62-60 (Four of those six finished in the top half of the Atlantic 10 Conference, part of an 11-game winning streak).

Balance did Xavier just fine last year in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, experience is what the Musketeers will bank on – along with balance, of course – to make their postseason stay last a bit longer.

Sean Miller’s club landed on the bottom half of one of last March’s most thrilling late-game comebacks. Xavier, a nine-seed, led top-seeded Ohio State by 11 (by nine with 2:54 left) in the tourney’s second round, only to see fifth-year Buckeye senior Ron Lewis can a game-tying three in the final seconds following a missed Musketeer free throw. The overtime game ended with Xavier falling, 78-71.

A year older, a year wiser, just as deep.

Six Musketeers finished the regular season averaging at least 9.9 points per game. Three of those six shoot 52.3 percent or better from the floor.

“A team (which could put together a nice tournament run) that’s sort of out of the norm would probably be Xavier,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas. “I think Xavier’s really good. They’ve got six guys averaging right at double digits, nobody averages more than 13, they’re all older, they’ve got really good guards, good defensively, got guys that can really shoot it, they can spread you, they can drive you, they’re good in transition.

“That’s a really good basketball team. They’re older, which is a really important thing.”

That balance and experience translated in the regular season into consistent winning, as Xavier sustained winning streaks of six, seven and 11 games at various points.

A team used to ripping off multi-game runs can’t be taken lightly.

“We didn’t just get good at the end of the season like we’ve done in some past seasons,” Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski told the Cincinnati Enquirer in a recent interview. “We answered the bell from the very beginning in a consistent, encouraging way.”

Different players have played the role of ‘go-to-guy’ at various points in the season.

For stretches, it’s been 5-foot-7 senior guard Drew Lavender, an Oklahoma transfer and former McDonald’s All-American. At times it’s been senior Stanley Burrell, regarded as a sticky on-the-ball defender on the perimeter.

Of late, it’s 6-foot-9 senior Josh Duncan.

“The emergence of Duncan has really taken our team to another level,” Miller told the Enquirer following a 62-60 win over Charlotte on Feb. 13.

His big game that night against the 49ers – 25 points on 7-of-7 shooting and 5-of-5 proficiency from long range – came toward the tail end of an eight-game stretch in which he was merciless on opponents.

That run included wins over St. Joe’s, LaSalle, Dayton and Rhode Island, and saw the Musketeers go unblemished. Duncan averaged 15.4 points over that set of contests, shooting a blistering 66 percent from the floor (40-of-61) and 65 percent from three-point range (17-of-26).

Duncan hitting from both inside and out does nothing but make the experienced Musketeers (two seniors and three juniors in Miller’s top seven leaders in minutes) more of a matchup nightmare.

But playing the role of 800-pound gorilla, oddly enough, is the team’s smallest guy – Lavender. More specifically, Lavender’s tender left ankle.

It could bear the weight of Xavier’s San Antonio hopes, as he’s truly what makes this offense go.

He turned it in that Feb. 13 win at Charlotte, and didn’t rest it at length until sitting out Xavier’s regular season finale with Richmond, Atlantic-10 regular-season title already in-hand.

“If him not doing anything was the best for him, we would do that,” Miller recently told the Enquirer. “Big picture, that’s an easy call. But him not doing anything could put him further behind two weeks from today, when the Madness convenes.”