ST. LOUIS — In this corner, from the big, bad Big East Conference, one of the true tournament heavyweights, with a record of 27 wins and 5 losses, the Musketeers of Xavier … Xavier … Xavier. …
And in this corner, representing the Big Sky Conference and spunky, underdog programs everwhere, with a record of 26 wins and 8 losses, your Weber State Wildcats … Wildcats … Wildcats. …
Yes, in another delightful David vs. Goliath matchup brought to basketball fans each year by the NCAA Tournament, Weber State steps into the ring (or, in this case, onto the court) against heavily favored Xavier University here tonight at 7:20 p.m. MDT in a first-round battle of the East Regional at the Scottrade Center.
The 15th-seeded Wildcats, making their second NCAA appearance in three years and their 16th all-time, will play the part of the decided underdog against the second-seeded Musketeers, who've been to the Big Dance 10 times in the last 11 years, earning five Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight bid over the last nine seasons.
And though it's highly doubtful that anybody outside of Ogden will be picking Weber State to advance in their NCAA bracket pool, the Wildcats aren't going to concede a thing.
"It's not in our DNA to think that we can't win a game," said WSU coach Randy Rahe. "And it doesn't matter who we play, when or where. That's not the way we think. So these kids are going into this game (tonight), they're going to go in like we have all year long — we expect to win the game. That's what we do. You can't go in any other way.
"And these kids believe that and I want them to believe that, and that's kind of who we are."
Joel Bolomboy, the only senior on this year's Weber State squad, has averaged 17.2 points and 12.7 rebounds a game and is one of five finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year award.
Bolomboy, with 25 double-doubles this season, ranks third in the nation in rebounding and was named the Big Sky's Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
Against Xavier, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Bolomboy will go up against a pair of strong 6-10 Musketeers in senior James Farr, who averages 10.8 points and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds a game, and junior Jalen Reynolds, who adds 9.4 points and 6.4 boards for seventh-year head coach Chris Mack, who has already received a couple of national Coach of the Year awards.
"They're just really tough and physical and athletic," Bolomboy said of the Musketeers' big men. "They're a little more physical than the teams we've played this year and way more athletic than the teams we've seen this year."
Coach Mack is impressed with what he's seen in scouting the Wildcats.
"Obviously it all starts with Bolomboy, but they've got other players that are very, very big," he said. "They present more size than I think Big Sky opponents are probably used to, and it forces you to make a decision whether you collapse (the defense) or trap.
"And then not only (Jeremy) Senglin but (Ryan) Richardson, guys on the perimeter can really, really shoot the 3. And so that's sort of the rub you're in. How do you want to play their frontcourt, because their perimeter players really space you and spread you with their ability to shoot the 3."
Mack had plenty of good things to say about Bolomboy.
"I don't think there's anyone (we've faced) that has his size, skill, athleticism," the Musketeers' coach said. "He's the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He's just a big challenge on both sides of the floor. … He's just a very difficult matchup.
"… His development over the course of his career has been really impressive. … Now you look at him as a senior, he's going to get a lot of NBA looks and it's because of that development. So it's a big challenge for us."
Reynolds is ready for the challenge of taking on Bolomboy.
"They love to get the ball inside," he said. "We expect anything. I'll be ready in the post. I'm really looking forward to it. We've got to get some transition, get out there and run."
Sophomore guard J.P. Macura, named the Big East's Sixth Man of the Year, is well aware of Bolomboy and junior guard Jeremy Senglin, the Big Sky Tournament MVP.
"They're really well-coached," Macura said. "They have a really good big man and a really good guard. They come off a lot of staggered screens, and we have to be ready to run with them, play good defense, play together."
Junior guard Myles Davis agreed.
"Weber State's really good," he said. "The big man, Bolomboy … he's athletic and really strong, and Senglin, he can really shoot the ball. … They have a really good supporting cast for those two guys. … So we just got to be ready and have to make it a tough day for those two guys and not make it a good day for any of the other guys."
Davis said that despite his team being installed as a prohibitive favorite, the Musketeers aren't taking the Wildcats lightly.
"I think we'd be crazy to overlook Weber State," he said. "They definitely won their conference championship, and they're a very, very good team. So we're going to treat Weber State just like we treat every team — and that's exactly what we've been doing all year."
Coach Rahe, who earlier this year became the school's all-time winningest coach with 208 career victories, is very impressed with what he's seen after spending the past few days scouting Xavier.
"They're one of the best teams in the country, but the thing you look at or you see in them is their size, their athletic ability, and then their physicalness and their toughness," Rahe said.
"Their rebounding is outstanding; they're one of the better rebounding teams in the country, the best rebounding team in the Big East. And it's because of that physicality and toughness that they're at the top of their league. So we've got to be able to rebound with them. We've got to match their physicality. We like to play that way, too."
Xavier has been installed as a 13-point favorite over the Wildcats, and for good reason. Of the Musketeers' five losses this season, three of them were to highly regarded NCAA tourney teams — No. 2 seed Villanova (29-5), and No. 6 seed Seton Hall (25-8), which beat Xavier twice.
Xavier, with its highest NCAA seeding ever, went 6-1 against teams ranked in the Top 25 by the Associated Press, including a 3-0 mark against Top 10 teams.
Reynolds said the Musketeers' schedule has definitely prepared them for what's to come in the NCAA Tournament.
"Definitely. It's a powerful platform to play on, and it's really fun to be a part of it. I think it's definitely prepared us to play in the right way. Butler, Creighton, Villanova … they're all tough. They're all good teams, and they prepare us the right way."
Weber State, meanwhile, faced only one team that made the NCAA's field of 68 teams. The Wildcats split two games against South Dakota State, which is the No. 12 seed in the West Region.
"We've always liked this challenge," Rahe said. "Anytime you get an opportunity to play a BCS school, especially in the NCAA Tournament, it makes it that much more special. So these kids are going to embrace it and relish it and go out and obviously play really hard and fight like crazy and see what happens."