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UMass, Xavier rivalry could be ending sooner than expected

CINCINNATI, Ohio — If the reports are correct, the expedited conference realignment means that Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at the Cintas Center is the University of Massachusetts’ last regular season game against Xavier as Atlantic 10 rivals.

According to reports, Xavier and Butler will leave the Atlantic 10 after the season to join the seven Catholic schools that are leaving the Big East and taking the conference name with them. The surprise was the timing.

Most of the early reports had the Big East schism coming after the 2013-14 season. Whether Dayton and Saint Louis join the Musketeers and Bulldogs in the new conference is unknown.

While the movements will have significant impact on the future face of college basketball, UMass coach Derek Kellogg has more immediate concerns for his team.

The Minutemen are a game behind the Musketeers in the A-10 standings. Winning Saturday might give UMass (17-9, 7-6 A-10) final bragging rights in the rivalry, but more importantly it would give it a jump in the standings and a critical tiebreaker should the teams finish tied.

Xavier doesn’t look much like the team that UMass beat in the Mullins Center last year and eventually reached the Sweet 16. Tu Holloway graduated, Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona and Dez Wells was dismissed from school before landing at Maryland.

But after a slow start Xavier (16-11, 8-5) appears to have found its stride.

“They’ve become a borderline NCAA tournament team from a team that early on was really struggling,” Kellogg said.

The Musketeers’ rise has been aided by the rapid development of freshman lead guard Semaj Christon, who is the leading candidate for conference rookie of the year. He leads Xavier in points (15.0) and assists (4.5), but isn’t a pure point guard because of his score-first mentality and the fact that senior Dee Davis also does a fair share of the ball handling.

“He’s got that next level size and athleticism. He has a real big upside. He scores the ball from the point. He has some good attributes. He’s one of the better point guards in the league right now. I think if he stays next year he’ll be one of the best point guards in the league along with Chaz Williams,” Kellogg said. “He scores the ball from that position. He’ll ball fake like (Boston Celtics point guard Rajon) Rondo does. He’s a little like D-Rose (Chicago Bulls point guard Derek Rose) as he’s as a bigger athletic guard that can shoot over you. He makes tough shots.”

Williams added some praise of his own for Christon.

“He’s a pretty tough check. I’ve seen film on him and watched the Memphis game,” Williams said. “He’s a pretty tough kid. It’s going to be a tough matchup, but he’s still a freshman at the same time. You’ve got to take that into consideration.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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