Xavier started this season ranked seventh in the AP poll. A year after hitting their highest ranking of all time and landing a #2 seed, the Musketeers were, in rough terms, ranked as an Elite Eight team. We’ve gone over and over the reasons for optimism when the season started, but suffice to say that Xavier fans had many reasons to reasonably expect a long run from their squad. Elite Eight? That always seems like a stretch, but certainly the Sweet Sixteen was well within the realm of reason.
The first serious hit to that came not with the road losses to Baylor and Colorado, but the three game swoon and subsequent departure of Myles Davis. Xavier had counted on the return of their senior leader to help steady the team and add some much needed ball discipline and outside shooting. That didn’t happen and the team fell into something of a tailspin, losing four out of five and meriting some serious questions as to their mental toughness.
Still, if Xavier seemed a lock for the Sweet 16 early in the year, it still was a reasonable expectation if they could right the ship. Very few teams in the nation have talents like Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner, to say nothing of JP Macura. If Coach Mack could paper over the cracks and wake his team back up, they were still just as loaded as early in the season when they were ranked seventh in the nation. It would be some work, but the second weekend was well within reach.
Then Edmond Sumner tore his ACL. That left Xavier as a team coming off dropping four of six, losing their ostensible leader, and then watching their most talented player crumple in a heap. Oh, and it left them with only one true guard on the roster. A freshman guard at that, who had played 20 or more minutes three times this season, none of those in appearances against teams in the 125 of the KenPom. Tweets, texts, and messages started coming in as to whether this Xavier team, playing like it was, might be looking at falling out of the tournament altogether. That may have seemed extreme, but a double digit seed and a horrid matchup suddenly were very much in play.
But once again, there was a change in the plot. Where the gutty home win over Seton Hall may only have hearkened to some of the old steel returning, the road win over Creighton was a genuine resume builder. Quentin Goodin has answered the bell with 12 assists against only five turnovers in 36.5 minutes per game since Sumner went down, and the team has suddenly found an outside shooting stroke. The fanbase has gone from bottomed out despair just a week ago to wondering if somewhere in that malaise the team found its old swagger.
The question now is what to expect going forward. Wednesday looks like it should be a win, but Providence was probably thinking the same thing when DePaul beat them. Make no mistake, Xavier isn’t as good now as they were earlier in the year. Is the Sweet 16 still a reasonable expectation? Should fans lower their expectations based on the way things have gone since the turn of the calendar year? The only sure thing is that, as the calendar tips into February, Xavier is back in the position of being the underdog.