March Madness: Why Xavier's Sweet 16 run is so unlikely
In 2015-16, Xavier went 28-6, boasted a top 25 offense and defense, won 14 Big East games and earned a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Musketeers were knocked out in the Round of 32 by Wisconsin on a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater.
In 2017, Xavier is 23-13, has neither a top 25 offense or defense, won nine Big East games and received an 11 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Musketeers are bound for the Sweet 16 after demolishing Florida State by 25 points.
College basketball is funny like that.
This year’s Sweet 16 doesn’t have a Cinderella, at least in the traditional sense. Xavier plays in the Big East and has reached 11 NCAA tournaments in 12 years. It's more Simba than Cinderella.
But make no mistake. Based on the lows Xavier reached this season, the Musketeers are the least likely of the Sweet 16. And that’s what’s so fun about this tournament.
Star point guard Edmond Sumner, arguably Xavier’s best player, tore his ACL in a January 29 win against St. John’s. The Musketeers promptly won their next three games, but after that, they slid. Badly. Xavier lost its next six in a row. Without a win over Big East bottom-feeder DePaul to end the season, the Musketeers might not have made the tournament.
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The Musketeers weren't particularly deep even at full strength. Their top two bigs from last year moved on in the offseason, and when they essentially lost their starting backcourt, things looked terrible. For good measure, Bluiett was mired in a horrid slump, shooting around 40 percent after a breakout sophomore season. Based on those factors, punting this year and looking toward next one seemed like a reasonable strategy.
Yet here are the Musketeers, gearing up for a Sweet 16 matchup against Arizona and a man it knows very well: former Xavier head coach Sean Miller.
“I’m never surprised at those guys because I know how good [Xavier head coach] Chris Mack is,” Miller said on Saturday.
How has X righted the ship? For starters, Bluiett is playing the best ball of his career. In two tournament games, the junior is averaging 25 points and shooting better than 50 percent on 3s. Mack uses Bluiett at positions 2 through 4. Bluiett was a borderline go-to guy with Sumner in the fold. Now he’s playing like a full-fledged superstar.
“The way he played in the second half [against Maryland] was special,” Mack said. “I've known it for a while. Like most players, they continue to get better, and Trevon is no different in that regard.”
Xavier’s frontcourt play had been uninspiring for much of the year. But like Bluiett, Sean O’Mara is playing better than he has all year; he averaged 13.5 points against Maryland and Florida State. Going into March, O’Mara had reached double figures only five times.
Then, there’s Kaiser Gates, a first-team all-airport player who has not quite put up numbers you might expect. Gates is shooting less than 40 percent, but as a 6-foot-8 hybrid forward with athleticism, he’s enticing.
Gates has made 7-of-11 3s in the NCAA tournament and is averaging 12.5 points. At peak performance, he’s the perfect 3-and-D guy to slot next to Bluiett. Gates played a huge role in hassling FSU's Jonathan Isaac into a sub-par performance (4-for-7, eight points) on Saturday.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it should be noted: Xavier got one of the best draws an 11 seed can get. Maryland went 4-6 in its 10 games leading into the dance. No. 3-seed Florida State, as explosive as it was, beat just three NCAA tournament teams away from Tallahassee all year. The Musketeers are playing well, but let’s say if Xavier drew another No. 3-seed as its opponent -- UCLA, say, or Oregon or Baylor -- we might be having a different discussion.
Regardless, the reality is that Xavier, a team some worried might not be able to steal a win at DePaul in order to solidify a tournament berth, is in the Sweet 16. We haven’t seen any game-winning buzzer-beaters or overtime thrillers yet in this tournament. But as far as surprises go, the Musketeers are a good one.