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Xavier’s Christon turning heads with his play as a freshman

The race for the player of the year in the Atlantic 10 isn’t as clear-cut as it’s been in past seasons, but the pick for the rookie of the year is all but settled even with four weeks to go in the conference season.

Xavier point guard Semaj Christon has emerged as the front-runner with his multi-faceted skills and unflappable nature in tight games.

He’s averaging 14.9 points, 10th in the league. No other freshman is in the top 10 in scoring, and VCU’s Treveon Graham in the only sophomore in the group.

Christon is fifth in the A-10 in assists (4.6) and 10th in steals (1.5). And he’s a prime reason why the Musketeers have been one of the surprise teams in the league. Picked to finish ninth, they’re tied for fourth at 6-3, one game out of first place.

“He’s gotten tons better as the year has gone on,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “He didn’t come in with a sense of entitlement. He watches tape. He works on his game after practice, he comes early to practice. He just has a chip on his shoulder and he plays to win.

“Because of that type of attitude, his teammates enjoy him as a teammate. They believe in him. There’s no sense of jealousy, and sometimes that can happen when you’re led at times by a freshman. In big moments, he’s played well for us.”

Christon, who was just named A-10 rookie of the week for the fifth time, is bidding to become the first freshman to lead the Musketeers in scoring since Stanley Burrell in 2004-05 and the first frosh to lead them in assists since Dedrick Finn in 2002-03.

He had 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in a 73-65 road win over Duquesne on Saturday.

“He’s a fantastic young player,” Dukes coach Jim Ferry said. “He just puts so much pressure on the defense. It just allows other guys make plays, and he makes plays for them. … He keeps his dribble alive, he’s got great quickness, great length. I thought we did a really good job on him, and you turn around and he’s got six assists in the first half because he’s playing off what the defense gives him. He’s going to have a heckuva career in this league.”

Under-appreciated: Butler is ranked 11th in the Associated Press poll this week, but there’s still a perception around college basketball that the Bulldogs aren’t quite as talented as other schools ranked that high.

Charlotte coach Alan Major isn’t buying it.

“It’s a shame people look at it that way. If you understand basketball, sometimes people confuse talent with whether a guy is an NBA guy,” Major said. “Kellen Dunham can make six 3-pointers in a game. That’s talented. Khyle Marshall is capable of getting a double-double on a given night. That’s talented. You could just go on down their lineup. Rotnei Clarke can hang 25 points on you if you’re not careful. That’s talented.

“Maybe sometimes the average layman fan may look at it and say, ‘Do they have four NBA draft picks?’ … What you have is an extremely well-coached team that has blended a lot of talent together in one piece.”

The Bulldogs currently are going through some hardships. Center Andrew Smith suffered an abdominal injury and is out for at least the next two games. And forward Erik Fromm has rejoined the team after the death of his father from cancer. The entire team attended the funeral services Thursday.

Dangerous conditions: Rhode Island dropped a 67-61 decision at home Saturday to St. Bonaventure. But for Rams coach Dan Hurley, the game took a backseat to just making sure his players were safe and warm after the region was socked by a blizzard that dropped more than two feet of snow.

“The state was hit so hard. There’s still maybe 100,000 people without power or electricity,” Hurley said. “We were really only able to maybe throw together one opportunity to eat. The kids in the residence hall lost power during the storm, and we were just trying to keep guys around the arena because there was power here.

“But there’s a lot of folks in this part of the country that are dealing with a whole lot more than what we had to deal with — life and death situations, not just struggling to prepare for a game.”

RPI update: The A-10 has 10 teams in the top 100 of the RPI again this week. Butler has an RPI of 15, La Salle 29, Temple 49, VCU 51, UMass 53, Charlotte 57, Saint Louis 60, Richmond 72, Xavier 82 and Saint Joseph’s 91. Dayton just missed the top-100 at 104.

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