This year has been a year of firsts for the Xavier Musketeers. It is the first year they’ve won the Big East regular season title since joining the conference in 2013, and it is also the first year they’ve eclipsed the No. 5 ranking in the AP polls in program history. Now they’re poised to pull off one more first: a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Xavier has long strived to reach the pinnacle of the Big East. Winning this year’s conference tournament would put them there.
That’s not to say this Xavier team isn’t good. It is. There’s a reason it dethroned Villanova as the regular season champions of the Big East. The Musketeers are a high scoring, highly efficient team on offense, led by Trevon Bluiett, a potential All-American who’s scoring 19.2 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3.
They’ve got guys like senior guard J.P. Macura and junior forward Kaiser Gates, high energy guys who are able to contribute on both ends of the floor. Big East Coach of the Year Chris Mack has his players looking better than they ever have before. They’re an undeniably fun and entertaining team to watch, and they’re flying higher than ever.
“The mountaintop for us was winning the Big East regular season championship,” Mack said after dominating the St. John’s Red Storm 88-60. “And now, we’ve got hopefully some more mountains to climb.”
Now that Xavier has reached the top, it has a new goal: staying there.
The Big East is one of the best conferences in college basketball. There’s Xavier, but after that there’s Villanova, the only other team to win the regular season title in the past five years since conference realignment, as well as a national title in 2016.
There is also Providence and Creighton, two teams that are perennial threats to make the tournament. Providence has made the tournament the past four years and is on the bubble right now to make it for a fifth year.
Creighton made the tournament last year, and with a 21-10 record this season looks poised to do it again. There’s also teams like Butler and Marquette, teams that historically have made it to the NCAA tournament and done well. The Big East is stacked with talent, and Xavier knows it.
“We had 70 percent of our league making the NCAA Tournament a year ago,” Mack said about how far the conference has come. “This year’s been a dogfight. We certainly came on the right end of a couple of one-possession games.”
The fact that these games were so close is what makes Xavier interesting. The team played well in the regular season, but a lot of its conference wins aren’t that convincing.
Ten of the Musketeers 15 wins this year were by single digits, and seven of those 10 were by five points or fewer. Along with this, they were swept in the regular season by Villanova, beaten handily in both games.
Tournament season is significantly different than the regular season, and the Musketeers are going to need to turn it on like they did against St. John’s Thursday if they want to stay on top.
In order to solidify themselves as the best, it’s pretty simple what they have to do: win the conference tournament and beat Villanova.
For now though, the Musketeers aren’t too worried about what the Wildcats are doing. All they care about is the next game and themselves.
“Our focus really isn’t on Villanova right now,” Gates said about potentially facing the Wildcats in the tournament. “We’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
Mack said the rankings didn’t matter.
“I’m not smart enough to — and haven’t been in this position enough — to know one seed, two seed,” Mack said. “I think these guys are cognizant of the fact when we were an 11 seed it added an extra one, and it didn’t matter a year ago. We’ve got to go out there and play with desperation and want the game more, and hopefully we continue that ride here as we play on in March.”
It’s a simple mentality that plenty of teams adopt during tournament play. But the question is when Villanova becomes that next game — which will most likely happen, sooner rather than later — is Xavier up for the challenge?