Xavier (23-12) at Baylor (29-7), 7:15 p.m. EDT
Baylor vs. Xavier is more than an undercard to the highly anticipated Kentucky-Indiana rematch.
The Bears and Musketeers are building their own impressive resumes heading into their round of 16 matchup Friday night for a spot in Sunday’s South Regional final.
Baylor, the No. 3 seed, is one win away from its second regional final in three years.
Xavier, the No. 10 seed, is playing in the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years. Only Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina can share that claim.
So excuse Xavier’s players for rolling their eyes Thursday when asked about being a mid-major school. And pardon Perry Jones III for pointing out that Baylor, like top-seeded Kentucky, is aiming for the national championship.
Kentucky meets Indiana in Friday’s second game.
“Yes, we are. We’re playing for the national championship even though we’re not expected to win one,” Jones said. “We weren’t expected to be here now.”
A key for Xavier may be freshman starting forward Dezmine Wells, who sprained his right big toe and played only eight minutes in Sunday’s 70-58 win over Lehigh.
Wells showed no sign of discomfort as he launched jump shots in Thursday’s practice at the Georgia Dome.
Xavier coach Chris Mack said Wells’ status would be a game-time decision.
“I’m hopeful that he’ll give it a go,” Mack said. “I think he’s very hopeful that he’ll give it a go. But how effective he is will be another story. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and say some prayers.”
Xavier (23-12) leans on high-scoring guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. Holloway, a senior, averages 17.4 points. Lyons adds 15 points per game.
Another starter, forward Andre Walker, did not practice on Thursday. Walker was hit in the head during a win over Notre Dame in the first round. He played only 20 minutes against Lehigh and should be available against Baylor, according to Mack.
“He’s had some migraine headaches over the last couple of days,” Mack said. “It’s just smarter for us, especially with a fifth-year player who’s been through the rigors of college basketball and knows what the NCAA tournament is all about, to just sort of stay back and continue to get rest so he can be able to go (Friday) night.”
Holloway said the Musketeers’ low seed only adds to their image as an underdog team from a mid-major conference.
“Sometimes I’m offended,” Holloway said. “We’re still, quote, mid-majors, but we continue to have success against the major teams that we play against in the power conferences.
“It is what it is. At this point, we’re just here to advance. If we’re being called the Cinderella, OK.”
Mack said Xavier players have had to answer questions all season about their ugly brawl with Cincinnati on Dec. 10.
“It wasn’t easy,” Mack said. “We’ve dealt with it wherever we’ve gone. I think we have competitive kids. We have kids that continue to believe in one another, and despite what the outside world presented to us, we continue to try to work to get better.”
Jones, the 6-foot-11 sophomore, said the Bears want to take advantage of their time on the national stage.
“Baylor’s been talked down upon, and we want to show everybody that we are a basketball team that’s capable of winning the championship, capable of winning games,” he said. “A lot of guys question our toughness, our toughness inside, our toughness outside, everything. We just want to show everybody we’re a tough team, and we can play with the best.”
Baylor (29-7) advanced to the round of 16 by beating Colorado 80-63 as Brady Heslip made 9 of 12 3-pointers for a career-high 27 points.
Heslip may bring out his “3-point goggles” if his hot shooting continues against Xavier.
After some of his 3s against Colorado, Heslip pinched together his thumb and forefinger on each hand, putting the circle over his eye and pointing three fingers up.
“The 3s I only got because my teammates found me when I was open, they set great screens, and they allowed me to get the shots off,” Heslip said Thursday. “They make it easy for me.”
Heslip, who averages 10.3 points per game, said he knows he may draw more defensive attention from Xavier.
“Xavier, I know they labeled me as a shooter, most teams do, so I’ve just got to do a good job coming off screens and getting open,” he said, adding the key will be “finding my teammate when they’re open if their attention is on me.”
Heslip has Holloway’s attention.
“Any guy that can score 27 points in the NCAA tournament without dribbling, he’s a really good player,” Holloway said.