A Big East tourney title would give Xavier its goal of being the conference’s best

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?

Xavier blows out St. John’s, continues journey towards Big East dominance

The Xavier Musketeers continued their dominant play in the Big East Thursday, blowing out the St. John’s Red Storm 88-60 in Madison Square Garden in the second round of the Big East Tournament.

Trevon Bluiett showed why he’s first team All-Big East in this game, lighting up the scoreboard for 27 points while also grabbing eight boards. The Musketeers were also able to stifle Shamorie Ponds, holding him to only 15 points on 4-14 shooting, seven of those points coming from the free throw line.

“It’s not easy to beat St. John’s on their home floor,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said after the game. “But we did. And hopefully we’ll be ready to go tomorrow night against the winner, Creighton or Providence.”

Xavier dominated during the regular season, finishing first in the Big East with a 15-3 record in conference play and 27-4 overall. The No. 3 team in the nation is led by All-American candidate Trevon Bluiett as well as Big East Coach of the Year Chris Mack and are looking to get the No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament with a win in the Big East Tournament.

St. John’s came into this game only 14 hours after beating Georgetown 88-77 in the first round. Although the Red Storm finished ninth in the conference, they found success against some of the top programs in the nation, including wins over Duke and Villanova earlier this February back to back. They also only lost their two games against Xavier by a combined 11 points.

“They’re a tough team to play against under any conditions,” St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said about the quick turnaround. “The turnaround is what it is. It’s scheduled out and that’s what you get for coming in ninth.”

“Coming into the game we have a ton of respect for St. John’s knowing that in both contests this year it was nip and tuck,” Mack said.

It was back and forth early on, with the Musketeers and the Red Storm trading buckets on both ends, with a total of eight lead changes in the first half. With 9:38 remaining in the first, the Red Storm found themselves on top 19-17. Sophomore guard Justin Simon got off to a hot start for the Red Storm, scoring 10 of St. Johns’ first 19 points. Xavier found itself in the lead at the end of the first however 33-29.

Free throws proved to help the Musketeers maintain that lead throughout the first. Although they only shot 36 percent from the field and 20 percent from beyond the arc, the Musketeers managed to get to the charity stripe 12 times, making 11 of them.

J.P. Macura played well for the Musketeers. A glue guy for Xavier, he was a presence on both ends of the floor, consistently contributing however he could.

“I think so many of the things that he does very well don’t necessarily resonate or show in the box scores,” Mack said about Macura. “He’s got win-first/J.P. second, and he’s not alone.”

Ponds, the star player for the Red Storm as well as the leading scorer in the conference at 21.8 points per game, struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, putting up only four points. Justin Simon and Marvin Clark II were able to pick up the slack however, getting 12 and eight points respectively after one.

Xavier started to build momentum in the beginning of the second half. The tide seemed to turn as the Musketeers started to hit shots and the Red Storm struggled. A Bluiett three with 15:42 to go in the put Xavier up 45-35, prompting a quick St. John’s timeout.

Xavier continued to dominate in the second half, with St. John’s quickly falling behind. The Red Storm started to find themselves settling more and more for outside shots, which is exactly what the Musketeers were hoping for. As shot after shot rimmed out for the Red Storm, more and more seemed to fall for Xavier, and with 9:04 remaining in the game the Musketeers found themselves up 65-46.

The Musketeers maintained their lead throughout the second, with St. John’s never finding a way to close the gap. It was Xavier’s half through and through, and it culminated in a final score of 88-60.

Xavier will play the winner of Creighton vs. Providence Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Madison Square Garden.