Dillard lost at Xavier in the teams' first meeting on Jan. 16. However, Bleu Devils center Rick Curry proved a difficult matchup with game highs of 26 points and seven rebounds.
Curry, 6-foot-9, has come a long way since entering Dillard in 2017 as a junior-college transfer from Dallas, Texas. He weighed 330 pounds, he said. Last season, he averaged 7.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 31 games, 13 of which he was a starter.
“It started my first year in junior college at Blinn (Texas),” he said. “Instead of a 15-pound freshman weight gain, I gained 45 pounds. I was eating a lot of fast foods and drinking a lot of sodas.”
Dillard coach Mike Newell told Curry that losing weight was imperative.
“I knew I had to lose weight,” said Curry, who said he'd like to play professionally. “When I went back to Texas, I started running and drinking a lot of water and eating a lot more green vegetables.
“When this season started, I weighed 260. Now, I'm 250.”
Curry is averaging 12.1 points on 59.1 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds this season. With Saturday's 5 p.m. Gulf Coast Athletic Conference rematch looming amid big implications for Dillard, Curry again figures to be important. The Bleu Devils (15-7), ranked No. 25 in the NAIA, enter the game at 8-2 in conference, 1½ games behind No. 8, first-place Tougaloo (20-4, 9-2).
Dillard has won the past two GCAC regular-season titles. A loss Saturday to its bitter rival could make a three-peat more difficult. After Xavier, Dillard has three games remaining, including at Tougaloo on Feb. 23. Tougaloo has two.
“If we lose to Xavier, we'd still have some wiggle room,” Curry said. “But a win would put us in real good shape to win conference again because we still have a game at Tougaloo.
“But the big thing is that we owe Xavier.”
Newell, who was on the No. 1-ranked Sam Houston State team that lost to Xavier 67-60 in the second round of the 1973 NAIA tournament in a monumental upset, lost in his first meeting to Xavier as Dillard coach before the Devils reeled off seven in a row in the series. The loss end January ended that.
A Xavier season sweep seems unfathomable to the Bleu Devils. However, guard Malik Amos, whose absence was conspicuous in the first game against Xavier, has been declared out for the season. More important, forward Jeron Rogers, Dillard's leading scorer, suffered a torn ACL since the first meeting.
Newell said others will have to step up, but Curry will have to shoulder the load. Newell said he has confidence he will.
“He has become the best big man in the conference this season, and I think he's one of the best big men in the NAIA,” said Newell, who is three wins from 400 career victories. “His defense is better, and he has improved his skills.
“Of course, losing weight is a huge factor. But, he had to slow himself down in the post and use his size and strength more effectively, and he's doing that.”