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The unlikely emergence of Sean O’Mara

Big Sean has been the unsung hero of Xavier’s run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Maryland vs Xavier Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Trevon Bluiett has been Xavier’s most important player on their Sweet 16 run. If I told you that was going to be the case before the season, you likely would have shrugged and moved on with life. There’s no surprise in the best player on the team being the key during the most important time of the season. It’s Xavier’s second best player during that run that has been something more of a surprise. With Xavier in desperate need of depth anywhere, Sean O’Mara has more than just filled a gap, he’s become a vital cog in the Musketeers tournament success.

O’Mara started this season looking like he would be an important piece of the Musketeers rotation. In four of the first seven games, Big Sean scored in double figures and played more than 15 minutes. After that, though, he started to slip away. It isn’t that Sean started to play horribly, but he simply wasn’t as effective as Coach Chris Mack’s other choices, RaShid Gaston and Tyrique Jones. When faced with quicker teams, Mack went with Malcolm Bernard or Trevon Bluiett at the four. Faced with the loss of time, O’Mara didn’t score in double figures again until February 2nd against Seton Hall. From then until the Big East tournament, including the two games directly preceding it, there were five times when Sean didn’t even play 10 minutes. 10 separate times, Sean didn’t even play enough to register an offensive rating.

Come the Big East tournament, something changed. Against DePaul, Sean played 17 minutes and went for 8/3/0. That wasn’t the change so much as it was a harbinger. The next night, Sean played 21 minutes against Butler and went for 10/4/0. In Xavier’s semifinal loss, it was another 20 minutes and 6/2/4. As Gaston lost time, O’Mara picked it up and started to become very effective with it. In the Big East tournament, his offensive rating was 135, a huge step up from his regular season number and a venture into the territory of the elite.

O’Mara was hardly done there, though. Against Maryland and Florida State Sean played the best basketball of his Xavier career. Against the Terps it was 21 minutes and a line of 18/7/1. The Florida State game produced a line of 11/5/3 in 21 minutes and included a steal and three blocks, the only three Xavier recorded all game. Sean’s offensive rating in those two games was an astounding 183 against Maryland and 179 against FSU. Going solely by that number, he was Xavier’s most effective player in the first two rounds.

So what changed? The first difference doesn’t show in the numbers, but encompasses all of them. O’Mara has gotten the ball on the blocks and immediately gone to work to score. That aggressiveness with the ball has allowed Sean to showcase the variety of back to the basket moves that it has always been evident he has. Equipped with a full arsenal and with the confidence to use it, he’s confounded two of the better interior defenses in the nation. Part and parcel in that has been taking care of the ball. Sean’s turnover rate peaked at over 20% during the season. Acceptable in a point guard, that’s terrible for a post player for whom each touch is precious. In 42 minutes of NCAA tournament time, Sean has coughed the ball up just once.

Aggressiveness and care for the ball aren’t the only changes though, Sean has just flat out shot the ball better recently as well. Since elimination play started, O’Mara is shooting 80% from the floor and 87.5% from the line. Those numbers now encompass 15% of Sean’s shots and nearly 33% of his free throws on the season. As Sean uses the ball more and takes more shots, he’s becoming incredibly effective. Finally, Sean is passing the ball well. Against FSU, Coach Mack moved him outside and was rewarded with two great backdoor looks and three assists. That pulled the Seminoles defenders out onto O’Mara and opened the space that the Musketeers used to carve them apart. In that same elimination stretch, Sean has accrued more than a third of his assists for the season.

There will be plenty of ink spilled, rightfully, about Trevon Bluiett’s scoring prowess and his willingness to throw the team on his back and go. He’s been unquestionably amazing. Lurking only in his metaphorical shadow, though, is Sean O’Mara. With Xavier needing contributions from everywhere, their giant center has picked the best possible time to take his game to the next level.