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Conference Schedule Analysis: Xavier Musketeers

Chris Mack's crew has some intriguing matchups in non-conference play, but nothing compares to the adrenaline-fueled high of Big East basketball. Here's what the Musketeers' journey will look like in league play.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

While Xavier didn't technically win the Big East championship last season, it did make it farther in the NCAA Tournament than any other squad in the conference, including No. 1 seed Villanova. So, in a way, the Musketeers kind of did win the league title.

They will begin their attempt to win a more official Big East championship later this year and we now have an exact road map to such a goal. Let's take a look.

Thursday Dec. 31 at Villanova

Big East fans without an official affiliation will love this matchup as it is a rematch of last year's Big East Tournament final. However, for Xavier, this is akin to jumping into the deep end at the family pool, rather than stepping in on the shallow end, pushing your little cousins out of the way/under water and diving in. What? You guys don't do that? Fine. Let's move on.

Villanova is still considered the class of the league, despite the departure of Darrun Hilliard, Dylan Ennis and JayVaughn Pinkston, helped primarily by the anticipated jump of Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart and Phil Booth, the return of co-Big East Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono and the infusion of talent in the way of Jalen Brunson. Xavier will get a chance to see just how talented the Wildcats are right away. Oh, and adding even more difficulty is the fact that the Musketeers must go on the road for this one.

Saturday Jan. 2 vs. Butler

One of the early games in the New Year's Marathon, this clash is a nice matchup between two NCAA Tournament teams. Butler has sniper Kellen Dunham back as well as Roosevelt Jones, who is a dark horse player of the year candidate. The fluctuating health of Andrew Chrabascz hurt the Bulldogs last season, but if he can stay on the court all season, he makes these 'Dogs even scarier. Xavier defeated Butler twice last season, including once in the Big East Tournament.

Wednesday Jan. 6 at St. John's

The difficult start to the league slate continues with a trip to Queens. St. John's had the largest makeover of anyone this offseason, replacing Steve Lavin with Chris Mullin and his glorious buzz cut on the sidelines, while plugging in a long list of recruits into the slots left open by departing players like D'Angelo Harrison and Sir'Domininc Pointer. The Red Storm are likely in for a heaping of growing pains, but Mullin's recruiting class makes for a team that should be at least entertaining.

Tuesday Jan. 12 vs. DePaul

One day, having DePaul on the schedule will not signal a time to relax. Today is not that day. The Blue Demons brought back an old friend to coach the team in Dave Leitao after the disastrous reign of Oliver Purnell. At the very least, the Blue Demons have Billy Garrett  and Myke Henry to keep spectators interested.

Saturday Jan. 16 at Marquette

If there is any team that can hang with Villanova in terms of exciting recruits this season, its Marquette. The Golden Eagles have five new guys coming in, including five-star recruit Henry Ellenson. Haanif Cheatham (four-star) and Traci Carter (four-star) have inflated expectations in Milwaukee quite a bit even if Marquette is had only 13 wins a year ago, none of which came against Xavier.

Tuesday Jan. 19 vs. Georgetown

After Villanova, Georgetown is probably the team most likely to beat the top of the conference standings. Xavier benefits from facing the Hoyas at home in this one, but it should still be tough, as D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera begins what feels like his 16th season and Isaac Copeland hopes to avoid a sophomore slump.

Of course, Xavier wasn't even remotely fazed by the Hoyas last season, dropping them three times, each by a double digit score.

Saturday Jan. 23 vs. Seton Hall

There were rocky waters in South Orange last season, with the Pirates going from an up-and-coming program headed by Isaiah Whitehead and Sterling Gibbs to a complete train wreck (sorry for the mixed metaphors), leading to the transfer of Gibbs transferred and Jaren Sina. Whitehead is still in town as is Big East Freshman of the Year Angel Delgado, who collects rebounds like a kid in the 50s collects bubble gum cards. Xavier beat Seton Hall at home last season, but fell on the road just a few weeks later.

Tuesday Jan. 26 at Providence

Road trip! This marks a stretch in which Xavier will play four of six games on the road. Providence features the most high profile player in the conference in Kris Dunn, who has won just about every preseason accolade there is.

Xavier was unable to stop Dunn and partner in crime LaDontae Henton during a 69-66 overtime loss at the Dunkin' Donuts Center last winter, with the duo combining for 44 points., 20 rebounds, nine assists and four steals. However, Henton graduated, so the focus will be more squarely on the nifty ball-handling of Dunn.

Saturday Jan. 30 at DePaul

Xavier lost a nail-biter to DePaul (71-68) at Allstate Arena last season, so it has to be careful not to overlook the Blue Demons on the road. It didn't help that the team let the hosts shoot a solid 24-of-46 from the floor, while allowing 10 3-pointers, four by the hand of Forrest Robinson, a player the Musketeers will not have to contend with in 2016.

Wednesday Feb. 3 vs. St. John's

Kicking off the month of Feburary is a a Wednesday evening tilt at the Cintas Center against the Johnnies. The Musketeers and Red Storm played each other in a nine-day span last season and the Red Storm managed to pull out two wins, including a 58-57 survival act in New York. With the major loss of proven talent on the roster, the Red Storm aren't likely to be as strong, so even if Xavier struggles in the first meeting, this should equate to a win.

Saturday Feb. 6 vs. Marquette

Surprisingly enough, Xavier had more trouble against Marquette at home than on the road. The Musketeers only won 62-58 in Cincinnati last season, but rolled to a 64-44 triumph a month later in Milwaukee. The difference was Matt Carlino, who scored 27 points in the four-point decision, but was out in the 20-point blowout.

Tuesday Feb. 9 at Creighton

After navigating their way through the first month or so of the conference season, the Musketeers get their first shot at Creighton, a team still in a state of flux since the departure of Doug McDermott. There are a few exciting transfers on the way, but former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster has to sit out this season due to eligibility rules. However, former Boston University guard Maurice Watson Jr. is eligible.

Saturday Feb. 13 at Butler

The Bulldogs won 13 of 16 home games last season after a fall from grace the year before, when they went 8-7 as hosts. Xavier should expect more of the former, so this will be a big test with March just around the corner.

Wednesday Feb. 17 vs. Providence

While they suffered heartbreak in Providence last year, the Musketeers silenced the Friars at home. They limited Dunn to 11 points and forced six turnovers from the Friar star, and that poor effort turned into a 78-69 win for the boys from Cincinnati.

Saturday Feb. 20 at Georgetown

We already know Xavier had Georgetown's number last season, but that was particularly true in the first half of their bout in Washington D.C. The Musketeers kept the Hoyas to only four field goals and 16 total points over the first 20 minutes. They also forced 13 turnovers to set them up for a 66-53 win. Showing that type of composure and defensive intensity on the road is always a good sign, and something they will try to emulate in this and all away contests.

Wednesday Feb. 24 vs. Villanova

Xavier lost all three of its games to Villanova last season by double digits. Xavier is probably a little worse than last year and Villanova may be even better. That is not an awesome spot to be in for any team in the conference.

Sunday Feb. 28 at Seton Hall

The Pirates have had exactly 10 home wins in each of the last three seasons. They have also had a combined 20 losses in that time. That's not bad, but certainly shows that South Orange is not as scary a place to play as Cameron Indoor.

Saturday March 5 vs. Creighton

This is the final regular season game for the X, but don't mistake it for an easy one. Xavier lost to the Bluejays 79-72 in overtime at home last season and only squeaked out a 74-73 win on the road in the regular season finale in the spring.

Final Analysis

Running through the Big East is never easy and the addition of talented freshman and some key transfer pieces means the league will be talented once again. While St. John's may drop, Marquette is set for ascension, and Creighton may not be far behind. Xavier has a tough start, but should benefit a bit from playing its last two games against competition that has yet to really prove itself. I envision an 11-7 finish in league play for the Musketeers, as they are a solid team, but one that will be right in the mosh pit that follows Villanova all season. If you combine that record with what I expect from their non-conference slate, the Musketeers should be a team with 21 wins and a strong enough resume to make the Big Dance. And that's before they try their hand in the Big East Tournament.