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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Duke's No Fluke, but What About Xavier?

Upstart Musketeers, with little to lose and everything to gain, say the pressure is on the Blue Devils.

March 28, 2004|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — It would be tempting to label upstart Xavier as a mere party-crasher to today's seemingly inevitable coronation of Duke as the Atlanta Regional champion.

Just don't bring that kind of talk around the self-styled Musketeers.

"Honestly, we don't feed into that," Xavier senior point guard Lionel Chalmers said. "I think guys feel like they deserve to be here. We've beaten two teams that are in the Elite Eight by 20-something points. I mean ... it's not a fluke, it's not a joke, and we understand that.

"Despite what anybody says, we know what we're capable of doing. We're going to continue playing the way we're playing and we'll see what happens."

That means winning at a white-hot clip.

No. 7 Xavier, the lowest-seeded team alive in the tournament, has won 16 of 17 games, including handing Saint Joseph's its first loss, an 87-67 pounding in the Atlantic 10 tournament. On Jan. 3, the Musketeers thumped Phoenix Regional finalist Alabama, 68-47.

But while Xavier is in uncharted waters -- it had never before advanced past the Sweet 16 -- Duke is aiming for its 10th Final Four appearance since 1986.

The Blue Devils' mystique is college basketball's equivalent to the New York Yankees' pinstriped aura. Then again, Duke hasn't won a national championship since 2001 and the Yankees last won the World Series in 2000.

"None of these guys have ever played in a regional final," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, motioning to starters J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing, Shelden Williams and Luol Deng. "That's the thing. I've coached in regional finals, but I haven't coached this group in a regional final.

"So that's where the past ... is irrelevant. The fact that our program has done it, I don't think makes much of a difference."

Senior point guard Chris Duhon was a freshman when Duke won its last title. He is nursing sore ribs and skipped Saturday's media availability sessions as he was undergoing treatment, Krzyzewski said.

"These kids are trying to achieve something that they haven't done yet," Krzyzewski said. "Just like the Xavier kids. Same motivation."

But different avenues.

Because while Duke was expected to be at the Georgia Dome with a trip to San Antonio on the line, many bracketologists had Xavier falling to No. 10 Louisville in the first round. Or to No. 2 Mississippi State in the second round. Or to No. 3 Texas in the Sweet 16.

Yet even with the Musketeers laying waste to office pools nationwide and opening up a clearer path for the Blue Devils to make good on their postseason media guide -- which is adorned with outlines of the Alamo -- Krzyzewski complained again about the seedings in his bracket.

"We played Seton Hall and they were an eight seed and Arizona was a nine," Krzyzewski said. "Are you kidding me? ... Those teams are good."

Duke, which destroyed Alabama State, 96-61, in the first round, did not have to face Arizona and played Seton Hall, the Blue Devils crushing the Pirates, 90-62, before beating another second-round upset-winner, fifth-seeded Illinois.

Numbers seem to mean everything to Krzyzewski, who had the NCAA expunge 15 losses from his record from the 1994-95 season when he underwent midseason back surgery and sat out the last 19 games.

It all gives credence to the notion that Xavier has little or no pressure on it. Beat Duke, everyone loves you. Lose to Duke, you weren't supposed to beat the Blue Devils anyway.

"We've worked hard to get to this point," Xavier senior guard Romain Sato said. "We're always the underdog. Duke is a really good team, but we play like we don't have anything to lose. We just have to go out there and give whatever we got."

Which may not be much, considering the amount of energy the Musketeers burned in their white-knuckle victory over Texas on Friday night.

"The way I look at this game is we have to start somewhere," Xavier Coach Thad Matta said. "However many years ago, it was Duke playing their first game to get [to the Final Four].

"As much as people think that we're consumed with Duke and that sort of thing, we're not changing the way we prepare. We're not changing our practices because of the name of the team that we're playing."

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