Xavier vs. Northern Iowa NCAA Hoops Pick – November 20th

We got back on track with college hoops yesterday, notching a winner with relative ease.  St. Mary’s stormed to a 20-point lead in midway through the second half but an epic Dayton comeback made me sweat a little bit.  The ended up closing to within one possession before some clutch Emmett Naar free throws sealed the deal.  All in all, it was a pretty good effort for both teams and one that helps the profile.  For Dayton, it is a narrow loss against a Top 15-20 team without a few of their key players.  And for the Gaels, it is a true road win against a likely NCAA Tournament team.

Today, three of the first wave of preconference tournaments will crown their champions.  It is fair to say that neither bracket looks exactly as expected when the individual tournaments invited schools several years ago.  Xavier was expected to win their top half of the bracket, but Oklahoma seemed a likely matchup.  Instead, it will be the Panthers of Northern Iowa who once again appear to have reloaded on the fly.  Villanova was a gimme in their tourney, but they will get surprising UCF in the final, who are massive underdogs but have won their games by an average of 20 points this year and have the curiosity factor in 7’6’’ Tacko Fall.

The best game of the day is probably one most people won’t see; unranked but talented NC State taking on Creighton.  We will learn a lot about both teams today.  Likewise, Rhode Island gets a MASSIVE program-defining opportunity against Duke today.  We will find out quickly if the class of the A-10 is indeed nationally legit at 1pm on ESPN.

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Today’s Free Pick:

Xavier Musketeers -4  vs. Northern Iowa Panthers

In an ironic twist, these two teams will meet again in a regularly scheduled game in Cincinnati next weekend.  The Panthers will want to take advantage of a neutral floor setting today to avoid a likely pair of losses against a team that defeating could substantially improve their tourney profile.

Northern Iowa was supposed to be a little down this season after losing some key cogs of last-years NCAA Tournament darlings.  In fact, last year was a pretty tough year for UNI before catching fire in the last six weeks, rallying back from a losing record to win the MVC Tourney and enter the Big Dance dangerous.  They upset #6 Texas on a half-court heave, then lost in the next round in one of the greatest collapses in tourney history, blowing a 12-point lead in the last 44 seconds against Texas A&M.

Anyhow,  LAST year was SUPPOSED to be a rebuild year.  So was this.  But here were are again, UNI already knocking off Oklahoma and Arizona State and looking like they could once again challenge in the Missouri Valley.  Experts picked them third, behind Wichita State and Illinois State… but I’d caution against fading the Panthers too hard this season.

Meanwhile, it was an auspicious beginning for Xavier, who enters this season with expectations about as high as they have ever been for this long-time excellent program.  They looked pitiful in the opener against a poor Missouri team and looked rough in home openers against should-be walkovers.  But things started to click Friday against a tough Clemson squad, and the #10 Muskies are beginning to live up to their advanced billing.  They are tough defensively and versatile offensively, especially with the big leap that Big East Sixth Man of the Year, J.P. Macura appears to have made with his game.  The Muskies have an edge in the backcourt with Sumner and Blueitt and Macura helps them space the floor, NBA style, with an ability to score from well behind the arc.

I think Xavier is too talented for UNI today, and like them, even laying the four points.

Free Pick:  Xavier Musketeers -4