I doubted. I admit it. When Myles left, when Edmond went down, when Trevon hurt his ankle, I wondered if this was going to be a Sweet 16 year for Xavier. Last season, the Musketeers were absolutely loaded but couldn’t get past Big East killers Wisconsin in the second round. This season, with a team only seven deep and a freshman point guard, how far could they possibly go?
The answer is we don’t know yet. Tonight, Xavier punched Florida State in the face and whatever plan the Seminoles had went out the window. A season full of Big East toughness came out in the form of a fearless swagger. Tyrique Jones backs down from no man inside, and he punched it multiple times as Florida State’s vaunted shotblockers cowered away from a man shaped like a small shed taking flight. Sean O’Mara lacks Jones pure ferocity, but he also wouldn’t be cowed, fighting for every rebound and blocking three shots while also dealing out three assists.
Xavier didn’t just outmuscle their opponents, though they certainly did that, they also danced around the bigger men like so many hornets. X assisted on 20 of their 30 made baskets tonight, with no one playing more than two minutes and failing to register at least one dime. Xavier’s bevy of talented shooters also picked a good day to finally break free from a season long slump by knocking down 11-17 from behind the arc.
But ultimately it came down to that toughness. X was faced with some of the class of the ACC but didn’t flinch at all. Instead, they took a team that was supposed to be their athletic superior and shut them down in every possible way. The Seminoles got 21 looks from behind the arc but only made four. For the game, they managed less than a point per possession as they never approached solving Xavier’s defensive amoeba. Sporting a 13% block rate and fresh off sending nine shots in the FGCU game, the ‘Noles only got to three of Xavier’s tonight. While the Eagles eventually shied away from Florida State and fell out the game, Xavier attacked them relentlessly. When the lead first hit 20, you could see the quit in the home team. Faced with a squad that was almost sneeringly unimpressed by their athletes, they faded, and lost.
Finally, a tip of the cap to Coach Mack. His army of clueless detractors appeared after the Shootout and again during the six game swoon, but he just lowered his head and plowed on. Tonight, he put on a masterclass against Leonard Hamilton. When Tyrique Jones snuck too high on the 2-3, he went 1-1-3 and let Kaiser Gates’ enormous wingspan go to work. It was clear that man wasn’t going to do it, so one of the biggest man to man disciples in the nation went all zone. On offense, he pulled Sean O’Mara away from the bucket and let him whip passes to back cutters, he ran double screen across action, he ran any number of sets to get Trevon looks or pull Kaiser high across the defense. While Leonard Hamilton looked bereft of ideas, Coach Mack just kept hitting Florida State with looks that confounded them. For anyone out there still asking the absurd question as to whether Coach Mack is a good coach, you more than have your answer.
So, once again, the Musketeers are in the Sweet 16. Against all odds, with the team falling apart, and faced with one of the best conferences in the nation, they pulled together and hit stride. With JP Macura occasionally running the point, with Trevon back to the four, and with the haters in a circle, tossing dirt on the grave, Xavier shut up shop and did what they do. Almost unbelievably, the Musketeers are still alive. Who knows what happens from here, but no one reasonable dares count them out.