CINCINNATI, Ohio -- So another No. 1 bites the dust. Villanova was in the final throes of a 90-83 thumping, and the clock was ticking down. Three ... two ... one ...
Wait a second. Why wasn’t the Xavier crowd – at 10,727, the largest in the 16-year history of the Cintas Center – stampeding onto court? Isn’t that what No. 1-busters do? And why weren’t the players acting as if they had all just won a championship? Oh, everyone was bubbly enough, and the victory was undoubtedly momentous. But still. It was all rather ... sane.
Coach Chris Mack would explain later.
"Ten years from now, 15 or 20 years from now, they’ll remember it," he said of his players, for beating a top-ranked team that had owned them in recent seasons. "But I think we have bigger fish to fry. We’re not sitting around with a 14-14 record. We have a group that if they continue to get better, the sky’s the limit, and I think our team understands that.
Yes, there they were, Hailee at 9 and Lainee at 10, in a two-girl court rampage. It earned them a hug from their dad, and some TV time.
But he’s quite right, of course. Xavier does have bigger water life to broil, and everyone should be noticing by now that these Musketeers might be up to landing some whoppers. As Villanova’s No. 1 ranking vanished here Wednesday night, just like the lady in the halftime magic act, two questions came to mind about the team that beat the Wildcats.
Is Xavier the best program going right now that has never been to the Final Four?
And will that question no longer apply by early April in Houston?
On the first, the case is awfully strong in recent years. Or at the very least No. 1A, with Gonzaga 1B. The Musketeers have attended nine of the past 10 NCAA tournaments, and advanced to the Sweet 16 five times in the past eight years. They are neither fluke, nor surprise, nor Cinderella. They are chronic Final Four door-knockers, waiting for an answer at last.
On the second, why not?
The Musketeers are thinking big, and no wonder. They are 25-3, and 6-1 this season against ranked opponents. In a season devoid of juggernauts, why not them? In Wednesday’s Big East bash, their many qualities were on display.
"This is stuff that you dream about when you’re a little kid and you grow up. you’re either A, the No. 1 team or B, you beat the No. 1 team," guard Myles Davis said. "This is breathtaking right now."
Balance? They went into the Villanova game with six players averaging at least 9.5 points a game, and all six scored in double figures. Two are sophomores, one’s a redshirt freshman. Only one’s a senior. Xavier ain’t going anywhere soon.
Muscle? They outrebounded the Wildcats by nine, just over their average.
The willingness to share? They had 24 assists for their 30 field goals.
"It was just a little bit better commitment to the details of the little things," Wildcats coach Jay Wright mentioned.
Oh, how the Musketeers have suffered at Villanova’s hand, and wanted it to end. Since the new Big East was born in 2013, Xavier was 0-6 against the Wildcats, by an average margin of 17.2. The worst was this past New Year’s Eve; a 95-64 pounding, which gets an asterisk because Xavier’s freshman point guard Edmond Sumner had to be carried off on a stretcher barely two minutes into the game with a scary head injury.
"It was certainly a weird game just because of where our players’ minds and our coaches’ minds were after Edmond went down," Mack said.
Here we are just over seven weeks later, and there has been a 38-point swing of fortune. Sumner had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Yeah, that made a difference. He’s the guy who makes it all go.
Was Villanova in Xavier’s heads? Not anymore.
"You have those thoughts, I’m sure, as players and coaches, everybody reminds you, 'You guys have never beaten Villanova since you’ve been in the league, the average margin of victory is yada, yada, yada,'" Mack said. "Our team was able to shrug all that stuff off.
"Twitter’s everywhere, social media’s everywhere. Everybody’s telling you how much the game means. Our guys' attention span is probably this big [putting two fingers barely apart]. When we’re looking at [ESPN bracketologist Joe] Lunardi as coaches, they’re probably looking at rap videos on YouTube. It doesn’t faze them."
Maybe not, but beating Villanova felt like another rite of passage, for a team with ever-expanding horizons.
"We’re still mad about what happened against Arizona last year and it just carried on to this year," Davis said, meaning a 68-60 loss in the Sweet 16. "We have a whole month, March is coming up, and we’ve still got time to get better.
"The sky’s the roof."
Maybe he meant limit, but either way works.
Their highest ranking ever is their current No. 5. Their best NCAA tournament seeding ever is No. 3. They’ll likely do better at both very soon.
Like the man said, the sky’s the roof at Xavier.