CINCINNATI — Trevon Bluiett came up just short of his biggest goal: Get Xavier to its first Final Four. He wasn't sure whether he'd go to the NBA after last season or return for a final one with a Musketeers team that's loaded with talent.
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One of the Big East's top scorers decided to come back and take one more shot at that elusive Four.Bluiett is one of four returning starters from a team that overcame enormous obstacles last season and reached the third Elite Eight in school history. Xavier (24-14) got healthy and got hot in the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Maryland, Florida State and Arizona before losing to Gonzaga.
In some ways, this Musketeers team could be even better.
Point guard Edmond Sumner tore an ACL at midseason and went into the NBA while still recovering. Quentin Goodin moved into the starting role as a freshman, struggled during a six-game losing streak — Bluiett also went down with a sprained ankle — but grew into a dependable playmaker by tournament time.
Several players grew into bigger roles in the tournament, most notably forward Sean O'Mara. With the addition of versatile forward Kerem Kanter from Wisconsin-Green Bay, the Musketeers have more options on offense this time around.
"I'd say this is the most unique team we've had," Bluiett said. "We pretty much have an answer for everything."
They have their leader back, too. Bluiett averaged 18.5 points per game last season despite being bothered by a severe ankle injury much of the way. He was there in the biggest moments, leading the Musketeers out of their injury-induced funk and onto their tournament run.
When Bluiett went to the NBA workouts after the season, he was told he needed to improve his defense and his energy level away from the ball. Xavier can see a difference in those areas already.
"Everyone in here knows he can shoot the ball at a really high level," coach Chris Mack said. "Him doing the other things and the little things sends a huge message to our team. Quite honestly, it makes us a better team. I expect a whole lot out of Tre."
Bluiett was forlorn after the loss to Gonzaga ended what could have potentially been his final college year.
"I wanted to get to a Final Four," Bluiett said. "I wanted to do something the school hasn't done. For us to get that close, that's what I was so emotional about, just to see it end."
He and the experienced Musketeers will get another chance.
Two. Weeks. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/gWPIn43How— Xavier Basketball (@XavierMBB) October 27, 2017
Some things to watch with the Musketeers:
Xavier's backup point guard was thrown into a tough spot when Sumner got hurt. Suddenly, the freshman had to be on the floor most of the game running the offense. He struggled at first but grew into the role over time and was a key in the Musketeers' tournament run. Goodin wound up averaging 5.1 points per game. Plantar fasciitis limited him this summer, but he's expected to be ready to lead when the season begins.
"To grow into a voice as a point guard was huge for his development," Mack said. "He experienced both failure and success, and he learned from it."
The 6-foot-10, 244-pound forward was inconsistent last season, losing confidence after a bad game. It came together for him in the tournament, including his 18-point, seven-rebound game against Maryland.
"We're just trying to keep that kind of flow going as a team, also for me individually," O'Mara said. "Carrying the success we had last year into the beginning of this season is pretty much our goal."
J.P. Macura wound up playing point guard — an unfamiliar position — for parts of games during the run of injuries. He was the only player to start every game last season and had an impressive NCAA Tournament, averaging 13 points. 4.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Now a senior, Macura and Tyrique Jones — who started as a freshman last season — round out the cast of returning starters.
KANTER & COMPANY
Kanter leads a group of newcomers after averaging 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The 6-foot-10 forward can shoot from the outside and push the ball up the court quickly, giving the Musketeers another dimension on offense.
MACK CLOSES IN
Mack has won 186 games in his eight seasons at his alma mater, leaving him 16 shy of Pete Gillen's school record for wins. Mack played for Gillen at Xavier. Mack did his best coaching job last season, guiding the Musketeers through their injuries and their slump.