When this college basketball season began, nobody would have questioned a future that included Xavier advancing to the Sweet 16 with relative ease. Three weeks ago, however, it might have sounded crazy.
The No. 11 seed Musketeers blew out third-seeded Florida State 91-66 on Saturday, rolling into the Sweet 16 in the West Region with one of the most impressive performances of the NCAA Tournament so far.
It was exactly the type of game everyone might have expected back in November, when Xavier opened the season ranked No. 7 in the AP top 25, viewed as a legitimate threat to Villanova in the Big East. It all made sense at the time: Despite losing in the second round last year, Xavier was a No. 2 seed that finished 28-6 and returned three starters in Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, plus a key reserve in J.P. Macura, who averaged 9.4 points per game. A consistently successful program under Chris Mack, Xavier appeared to have the ingredients to be one of the top seeds in the tournament again and make up for last year's early exit.
However, Xavier slipped up in big games early in the season, opening with a 14-6 record -- with five losses to teams that made the NCAA Tournament, plus one to Colorado. Then, during a win over St. John's on Jan. 29, Sumner tore his ACL, ending his season. This came on top of the absence of Davis, who left the team on Jan. 20 after spending most of the season suspended.
Xavier looked nothing like the team it was expected to be in the preseason, and it lost six straight games from Feb. 11 through March 1, making it much more likely to be headed to the First Four instead of the Final Four.
Now? The Musketeers still likely won't get to the Final Four, but they've put themselves in the Sweet 16 and look as dangerous as expected, even if shorthanded. They beat No. 6 seed Maryland by 11 on Thursday, then followed that up with a thorough takedown of Florida State on Saturday. They did it again behind the heroics of Bluiett, who made five 3-pointers and scored 21 points against Maryland, then topped it with 29 points against the Seminoles. Bluiett has become arguably the MVP of the tournament so far, propelling Xavier to its fourth Sweet 16 in eight years under Mack.
Bluiett hit three 3-pointers, and Kaiser Gates added four off the bench. Xavier shot 55.6 percent from the field, assisted on 20 baskets and committed a manageable nine turnovers, allowing it to jump to a 10-point lead at halftime. It proceeded to crush Florida State 47-32 in the second half, when Bluiett scored 21 of his 29 points.
Given those preseason expectations, it's been a tough season in many ways for the Musketeers, but thanks especially to Bluiett and Mack, the February troubles have been forgotten, and a sour season has turned sweet.