Head coach Chris Mack would be the first one to tell you that this was not what he had envisioned for his 2016-2017 Xavier team: coming off of a two seed in the tournament, the team was ranked in the Top 10 for a stretch of the season.
Then, things quickly took a turn for the worst.
Xavier, who had already dealt with the suspension of returning starter/senior guard Myles Davis for the first half of the season, found themselves losing three straight important games (at #3 Villanova, at #12 Butler, and #12 Creighton), then learned that Davis would leave the program after his three game return.
Adding to the fire was a loss to crosstown rival, at #19 Cincinnati, which was followed one game later with a season ending torn ACL injury to their best player, Edmund Sumner, in a win over St. John’s.
The fire, nevertheless, continued to roar when the team’s co-star, Trevon Bluiett, injured his ankle when the team was smoked in an ugly 73-57 home loss to #2 Villanova to start an eventual late-season six-game losing streak.
Then March hit.
On the week of the Big East tournament, the Musketeers found themselves on the tournament bubble grasping for dear life, but gathered its breath in their tournament-opening 75-64 win over DePaul. Next, they would take down the #18 Butler Bulldogs by a narrow 62-57. Next up would be the Creighton Blue Jays, who were able to fend of the Musketeers Big East tournament run taking Xavier down 75-72.
Selection Sunday arrived and there was still a bad feeling in the stomach of all involved in the Xavier program. As team after team was revealed by the selection committee, that bad feeling ripened. A wave of “holy cow, they didn’t make it” struck the air, before Greg Gumbel’s final announcement of the show slotted Xavier as a #11 seed.
In tandem with the #11 seed gave way to a new mentality for the Musketeers, which can be appropriately be told in the fine lyrics of Spoon’s “The Underdog” (which I got chills listening to this morning): Got no regard for the thing that you don’t understand / You got no fear of the underdog / That’s why you will not survive!
First up, it was the #11 seeded Musketeers taking down the #6 Maryland Terrapins, winning 76-65 and using the leverage of the now healthy Trevon Bluiett, who found 21 points.
Next were the #3 Florida State Seminoles, who Xavier gutted in a 91-66 victory that never appeared close, despite the Seminoles possession of two NBA Lottery-caliber forwards, in addition to a clear size and speed advantage. This gave way to the ever-elusive Sweet 16.
Standing in the path of the Musketeers path next would be a familiar hurdle; former head coach and mentor to their current braintrust (Chris Mack) Sean Miller and his #2 Arizona Wildcats.
Mack and Miller had met in one prior game, again in the Sweet 16, where Sean Miller had the better of Mack’s Musketeers, taking his Wildcats to the 2015 Elite 8 in a 68-60 victory.
Initially, the pairing looked lopsided and not jut by the nine degrees of seeding separation; the Wildcats started off on a 9-2 run and Xavier truly looked overmatched. The team never faded, as they found themselves trailing at the half by just two point, 37-35 in favor of Arizona.
Then, they got cooking. Senior guard Malcolm Bernard found himself playing the best game of his career when he scored all 15 of his points in the second half, going 5 for 5 in the period. In addition to the effort by Bernard, a pair of junior guards, JP Macura and (guess who) Trevon Bluiett helped sail the team to victory, hitting key free throws and icing a excellent three-point shooting club in Arizona.
After 40 minutes of play, the #11 Musketeers, who were clearly overpowered, knocked-off their old boss, getting a monkey off of their back, more than just Chris Mack’s over his mentor.
So, we’re in week two of the NCAA Tournament. The last remaining underdog became only the 11th double-digit seed to make the Elite 8. In addition, they’re starting two freshman, Quentin Goodin and Tyreke Jones, who are playing well beyond their years.
February almost denied this team a trip to the tournament, so perhaps it was fitting that the team took it upon themselves to burn their February calendar, keeping the ashes in a make-shift urn to remind them of what not to do at a stop light (literally, they did this).
Next up, after taking down the #3 and #2 seeds in consecutive games, #11 Xavier will face #1 Gonzaga in a game that could lead to their first-ever trip to the Final 4, but at this point, there’s no reason to think that they can’t do it; I’m done saying what this team can and can’t do, because they keep proving me otherwise.