Xavier's Crawford gets Pitt's attention

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MILWAUKEE -- Xavier likely should not have gotten away with that first half against Minnesota Friday, those ridiculous 20 minutes of alleged basketball in which the Musketeers took 42 shots and missed 33.

That's when they remembered, "Hey, don't we have that kid who dunked on LeBron James at his skills camp July 9, 2009?"

Why, yes, they sure do, so in the second half, Jordan Crawford not only grabbed that NCAA first-round game by its esophagus on the way to a 28-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist, 2-steal, 1-block, 5-3s-from-the-shores-of-Lake Michigan performance, but Jordan Crawford is Pitt's primary concern as the Panthers approach today's Sweet 16 reckoning.

"Yeah, I do remember seeing him on the YouTube video," said Jermaine Dixon, the Panthers' guard who will have primary responsibility for Crawford in the half court. "It's just a dunk. I don't think there's nothin' special about it. I guess dunking on LeBron is a big thing, but everybody gets dunked on, so that means nothing to me or any of us. We're just going to play our defense and try to keep him under control."

You might remember that it was a big enough deal that James and/or his representation tried to keep that video from going viral, but it remains to this day the first thing Google wants to show you if you start typing the name of Xavier's 6-foot-4 sophomore shooting guard.

Crawford seemed mildly annoyed with questions about it Saturday, as though he rather would be known as the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year or the leading scorer on the team that stands between Pitt and Salt Lake City.

"I ain't really heard too much about it," Crawford some 24 hours after his slashing offensive cadenzas brought gasps from a strongly Minnesota-leaning Bradley Center crowd. "Most people are just wondering how far we can go; that's all people have been taking about."

That's pretty topical actually, as Xavier walked into this West regional with a reputation under first-year coach Chris Mack as a team that rarely beats anyone it shouldn't. It was 2-7 against tournament teams, losing to Marquette, Baylor, Kansas State, Butler, Wake Forest, Temple and Richmond.

Crawford's reputation likely has outpaced Xavier's for the moment, and Crawford lengthened his lead Friday with a dazzling hesitation scoop shot in the paint, a no-look, 50-foot transition pass to shooting guard Terrell Holloway, and a 3 from the corner with less than a minute left that came down with ice crystals on it.

"When Jordan gets a little bit of space, he's awfully good," said Mack. "And he was remarkable yesterday in the second half, but I don't think our team ever looks to Jordan to simply take over while the other four guys stand around. I think when that happens we become a much easier team to guard."

Xavier surely presents a buffet of potential difficulties for Pitt. It has an experienced banger inside with 6-9 Jason Love and it brings a 7-footer off the bench in Kenny Frease, who in high school volunteered to lie on a bed of nails for a science experiment.

Don't ask.

The Musketeers win consistently on the boards and shoot free throws nearly as well as Pitt, which has its best free-throw shooting team in the past 11 years.

But let's not put too fine a point on it -- the Panthers have to stop Crawford lest their season stop cold sometime around 6 p.m.

I gotta tell ya, no one seemed real concerned about him Saturday.

"He has a lot of moves and scores in a variety of ways," said Gilbert Brown, "[but] I think with the type of defense we play, we'll be able to manage him. I'm not really worried about what they're going to present offensively. I really have a lot of faith in our defensive abilities."

Jamie Dixon is always coy about defensive assignments, as though no one individual is responsible for any other individual, and Saturday brought no waffling.

"It's always a team thing with us," Jamie said. "It's never one guy. It will be a transition defense. We can't allow him to get anything going in transition, or them as a team to get anything going in transition. One thing, you know, Crawford gets a lot of shots. He's going to get shots up, so he's going to score some points. We've got to make it as tough as possible, nothing easy."

It would hurt to pressure Crawford on the perimeter, because he has nailed at least four 3s eight different times this year, including his 5-for-11 performance against Minnesota. The reality is that Crawford is playing as well as he has in his young life, likely better than he was playing the day LeBron was fooling around in that pickup game last summer.

"I've had a very short college career so far," said Crawford, who began at Indiana after the previous Xavier regime under Sean Miller lost a recruiting battle for him to the amazing Kelvin Sampson Hoosier Implosion.

"It's only really been two seasons. I think I'm playing well, but that's because, as a team, Xavier's playing well. Before the Richmond game, we had won eight straight games, so I think we've come along as a team at the perfect time."

Today would be the perfect time for Pitt to hold Crawford to about 12. Anything like twice that, and he'll spend next weekend fielding LeBron questions in Utah.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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