The Musketeers are a divisive team this season. The predictive metrics (i.e., KenPom) don’t exactly favor them. According to KenPom, Xavier is the 14th best team in the country, powered by their seventh ranked offense. They also rank 59th in defense.
However, it’s hard to argue against the resume they’ve put together. Yes, teams that shouldn’t have gotten close came close. But a win is still a win, no matter the margin of victory.
This Xavier team has several ingredients needed to succeed in March, but they also have a few potential fatal flaws that could kill a tournament run. Here are a few reasons Xavier could make the first Final Four in program history, and a few reasons why they’ll fall short.
Reason they will: Experience
Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kaiser Gates have all experienced extreme highs and lows in the tournament. Two years ago, Xavier fielded arguably to most talented team in program history. They in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and were a trendy Final Four pick. However, a buzzer beating, fade away three by Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig ended Xavier’s season prematurely.
Last season, Xavier struggled with conference play, losing six straight after losing Edmond Sumner. They barely got in the tournament, but took advantage of the match ups once they got there. The Musketeers upset Maryland, Florida State and Arizona on the way to the Elite Eight.
The highs and lows experienced by the upperclassmen will be valuable, as experience tends to win out in tight situations come tournament time.
Reason they won’t: Match ups
Though Xavier is a very good team, they aren’t the only one in their region. Should they make the Sweet 16, their most likely opponent is Gonzaga, who is not only playing its best basketball of the season, but is also the highest ranked four seed in the polls and ranks six spots ahead of Xavier according to kenpom.com. Ohio State, the second most likely opponent, is only one spot behind Xavier in KenPom.
If they manage to beat Gonzaga in Los Angeles, Xavier will likely have to play either North Carolina or Michigan, both of whom are ranked in the top 10 in the polls and KenPom.
If neither of these teams make the Elite Eight, Houston will have most likely knocked them out. As the six seed in the region, Houston is ranked 21st in the polls and 17th in KenPom. This Cougar team should not be taken lightly, as they beat UC once and nearly beat them in the AAC title game.
The West region is a gauntlet, and the winner will not be one who can’t survive several challenges. And even though Xavier can win close ones, this might be too much for them.
Reason they will: Composure in tight games
Speaking of surviving tight games, Xavier is one of the best teams in the country in this area. They’ve only lost two single digit games this season, with both coming against Providence.
The advantage of having a group of seniors like this, other than experience, is that they aren’t easily rattled. Bluiett has hit numerous clutch baskets, Macura thrives off opposing crowds disliking him and O’Mara would be among the most efficient players in the country if he qualified.
As mentioned, these seniors have been through so much in the tournament, there’s very little they haven’t seen. It showed in tight games this season, as the Musketeers came out on top almost every time.
Reason they won’t: Defense failing to continue trending in the right direction
The defense had a couple strong performances in the Big East tournament, holding both St. John’s and Providence to just 29 points in both first halves. Against St. John’s, the defense continued to play well in the second half, holding the Red Storm to 31 points. However, the Musketeers allowed 39 points in the second half and allowed the Friars to climb back from 17 points down.
Despite this, the defense is appears trending in the right direction. The Musketeers improved their defensive efficiency quite a bit, and even jumped from 70th the 59th in defensive efficiency in just two games.
The issue is neither St. John’s nor Providence are considered very good offensive teams. They both rank outside the top 100 of offensive efficiency. This makes it difficult to determine if Xavier was actually improving, or just taking advantage of below average offensive teams.
We won’t get a definitive answer until the Round of 32 at the earliest, and maybe not even then. If the defense is back, Xavier will be a tough out for anyone. If it’s not, anything is possible.
Reason they will: History of tournament success
Chris Mack has a track record of success in the tournament, making it to multiple Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight in his eight years as Xavier’s head coach. With the exception of last year’s Elite Eight, Xavier has been within a few points in each loss.
Mack is an elite coach when it comes to matching up each game. His basketball IQ is incredible and he knows how to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. Last year, Xavier faltered because of lack of depth. This year, that shouldn’t be an issue.
The goal of this year’s team is to win a national championship, and when it comes to the tournament, you’d be hard pressed to find a coach much better than Mack at preparing his team.
Xavier takes on the winner of the North Carolina Central and Texas Southern play-in game on Friday in Nashville, TN. at approximately 7:20 p.m. in the Round of 64.