By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Fifth-ranked Xavier is trying to top one of its best regular seasons with a few things it’s never done at tournament time. First, it has to get that defense fixed.
The Musketeers (26-4, 14-4 Big East) have the No. 2 seed behind Villanova heading into the conference’s tournament at Madison Square Garden this week. The 26 wins match the most in school history, along with the 2007-08 team that reached the Elite Eight.
Their No. 5 ranking matches the best in school history. They’ve been ranked in the Top 10 for 13 consecutive weeks, by far the best run in school history. All of that came after the Musketeers were overlooked in most preseason polls and prognostications.
“The only thing that’s been surprising is our ability to handle success,” coach Chris Mack said on Monday. “And I think that’s really difficult with young people. It’s difficult with old people too, probably. Just being able to come to practice every day and not rest on their record or feel like we can take a day off — that’s been a little surprising because that’s not always the case.
“It’s hard when you always have a bull’s-eye on your back. Our guys have carried that pretty well.”
Xavier hasn’t won the Big East Tournament or reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. This team has all the pieces on offense to make a few more breakthroughs.
And Mack is tinkering with that offense to try to help the defense down the stretch. Xavier has given up 83, 90 and 93 points in its last three games, winning two of them. The Musketeers like to push the pace on offense — they’re among the fastest in the nation at getting off a shot — and Mack would like them to be a little more selective.
Xavier ranked among the Big East’s leaders in defense earlier in the season, but has slipped in the rankings as the combined scores in their games have climbed.
“We talked to our team all year long that the best teams in the country hang their hats on the defensive end,” Mack said. “I think this team can score with anybody in the country, but I don’t think we can outscore anybody in the country on a given night. I’d like our team not to learn that the hard way.”
The Musketeers are currently in line for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would be their highest ever. They’ve gotten as far as the Elite Eight twice.
Their next game is Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament against the winner of the first-round game between St. John’s and Marquette. The Musketeers swept both teams during the season. They beat St. John’s 74-66 and 90-83, and beat Marquette 74-66 and 90-82.
They split with top-seeded Villanova, losing in Philadelphia 95-64 on Dec. 31 and winning in Cincinnati 90-82 on Feb. 24 when the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the country.
“We haven’t been able to win the regular season title,” Mack said. “Now you have a little more incentive to be able to possibly hang a Big East banner that would be an incredible accomplishment. It’s not going to be an easy one.”
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