The 2016-17 college basketball season ended with an absolute rockfight of a final in which a team that Xavier fans have no love for beat a team that has relentlessly and unapologetically committed academic fraud for the last two decades. It was undoubtedly not the basketball showcase the NCAA was looking for. Here, though, we focus on the Xavier Musketeers. Starting today and continuing until we’re done, we’ll break down the season that started with such high hopes and ended in the Elite Eight.
Things have gotten off track a bit here in recent days with Trevon Bluiett’s arrest and legal issues, the arrival of Kemer Kanter, and the subsequent departure of Brady Ernst. To catch up, read Part One and Part Two of the Season in Review, and don’t forget to grade the players in our postseason ratings poll.
Xavier hit March in a completely unfamiliar position. Not only had the team lost six straight for the first time since before anyone on staff here was born, they were also facing the prospect of having fallen first onto the bubble and then all the way through it. The Musketeers had two games against DePaul in front of them to rescue the season. A loss in either would mean a trip to the NIT unless they won the BE tournament out right. Even that seemed a big ask from a team in a full tailspin.
Thankfully, Trevon Bluiett was back. He went for 24 and 10 in the first game against DePaul despite still looking hobbled by his ankle injury. That was a bullet dodged, not a cause for celebration. The opening round of the Big East tournament was another chance, basically, to get to a game that mattered. With Tyrique Jones out and Trevon still listing himself at 85%, the Musketeers once again knocked off the Blue Demons. This wasn’t the kind of win that earns at large bids. It was, at best damage control.
Late in that game, though, with JP Macura lobbing a soaring Quentin Goodin, there were some signs that Xavier was getting some of their swagger back. Yes, it was against DePaul, but it was an encouraging sign. For the first time in over a month, the Musketeers looked like a team that believed they could get it done. That would be put to the test when they faced one of the best teams in the conference and a top 25 team in the nation, Butler.
The Butler game was Xavier’s chance to save their season. A win likely put the Musketeers in the NCAA tournament, a loss left them on the outside looking in. Trevon Bluiett went for 17 in the second half and scored over Andrew Chrabascz for the win. X clamped down on defense after some genuinely awful performances in the second part of the season and held Butler to only 57 points. Three straight wins left the Musketeers safely in the field despite losing to Creighton in the Big East semi-final.
Or so we all thought. As the names were read on Selection Sunday, Xavier’s was notable by it’s absence. One bracket was read without generating a whole lot of consternation. Another went by and with it half the field. No Xavier, but still no real worry. It was when 75% of the teams had gone that the tension became almost unbearable. Then the 8/9 game in the West went by, no Xavier. The 5/12 game rolled by, no Xavier. The 7/10 matchup was called, and Xavier wasn’t in it either. That left one slot where the Musketeers could possibly be. Finally, as the last team to be called and in the last matchup to be announced for the second time in three years, Xavier was in.
The first game was Maryland. The Terrapins weren’t worthy of a six seed, and Xavier demonstrated that with an excellent second half. Trevon poured in 18 in the second half and simply couldn’t be stopped in 14-0 run that gave Xavier control of the game. That was one win, but now Xavier looked to suddenly have found the play that had eluded them since the turn of 2017. Standing in their way, though, was a darkhorse Final Four candidate Florida St., one of the tallest and fastest teams in the nation.
And Xavier crushed them. Musketeers fans can be forgiven the trepidation they felt before the game, but this team found another gear against the Seminoles. Confronted with a team that wanted to play fast, athletic, and mean, Xavier came out and punched them in the mouth early and often. Trevon went for 29/6/3, Sean O’Mara scored 11, went 7-7 from the line, and dished out three assists, and Xavier was a torrid 11-16 from deep. Chris Mack threw a variety of zones at Leonard Hamilton’s team and watched as the Seminoles came up with no answers. It was a masterclass from start to finish. Xavier was in the Sweet 16 not by hook or by crook, but by total domination.
And their reward was Sean Miller and Arizona. Once again, it was a team full of freakishly tall athletes, but this time they were backed by a much more than competent coach. For 36 minutes the teams punched and counterpunched but, with four to play, what everyone expected finally happened. Allonzo Trier took the game over. Xavier looked heavy legged, undermanned, and tiring. With 2:52 to play, Ken Pomeroy’s excellent formula gave Xavier a 2.8% chance of winning.
But Malcolm Bernard wasn’t going quiet into that good night. First he jarred a three pointer to cut the lead to four. Hope. JP missed a three and Mal grabbed the offensive board and got fouled. 2-2 from the line and the game was on. Then it was Trevon’s turn. With Xavier down five earlier he had canned a three, now he tied the game with two free throws. Tie game. 50 seconds to play. Zipping up in progress. Xavier Nation willing their boys to one more game.
But ties don’t get you in the Elite Eight. Coach Mack had been brilliant all night with defensive matchups and a gameplan that put the Wildcats in trouble. With the game on the line, he delivered the call of the night. With everyone keyed on Trevon Bluiett, Mack sent in a play to get the ball to March hero Sean O’Mara.
Xavier Game Winner - Corner Rip High Low Counter: pic.twitter.com/9yg4r3My6P— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 24, 2017
Sean sealed. Sean caught. Sean scored. Malcolm Bernard grabbed Trier’s desperation miss at the other end and didn’t stop running until he crushed a deliriously happy Conor Peterson. Xavier may have gone on to lose against Gonzaga, but that’s not the way to remember this team. These guys, an 11 seed that insisted they were not Cinderella, deserve to be remembered for that three second sprint down the court that capped another incredible March run. Xavier this year was down, but they answered the bell time and again. On the 23rd of March, they cemented their space in Xavier lore.