Point guard Edmond Sumner eased himself down the hallway from Xavier’s practice gym on Monday using a pair of crutches to protect his surgically repaired knee. Somehow, his team has figured out how to move on without him.
The Musketeers (23-13) are the biggest surprise in the Sweet 16. Double-digit wins over Maryland and Florida State set them on course for a rematch against Arizona (32-4) and former coach Sean Miller on Thursday in the West region at San Jose.
Xavier is the lowest seed left in the tournament at No. 11. After losing significant players at midseason, the Musketeers have reinvented themselves and followed Trevon Bluiett’s lead to a pair of NCAA Tournament wins.
It’s stunning for a team that was considered a potential play-in candidate heading into the Big East Tournament. They’ve got their confidence back, and it shows.
“I think confidence is everything in the game of basketball,” coach Chris Mack said on Monday, wearing a blue shirt that said “Winner Stays.”
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Mack’s eighth season as head coach — he took over when Miller went to Arizona — has been his most challenging. He’s had to reinvent his lineup repeatedly since midseason, moving players into unaccustomed roles.
Senior guard Myles Davis was suspended for the first semester while facing misdemeanor charges for damaging his former girlfriend’s property. He returned for three games, didn’t make a shot and ended his career.
Sumner tore his left ACL on Jan. 29, costing the Musketeers their second-leading scorer and quickest player. Bluiett, one of the top scorers in the Big East, severely sprained an ankle in mid-February, missed most of three games and was limited in others.
The Musketeers went into a tailspin in one of the nation’s toughest basketball conferences — 70 percent of Big East teams reached the NCAA Tournament. They lost six in a row, their worst slump in 35 years, and their depleted lineup was running on fumes as March approached.
Xavier beat DePaul to end the regular season, beat the Blue Demons again to open the Big East Tournament, then knocked off Butler and narrowly lost to Creighton in the semifinals.
“To be able to beat Butler kind of sparked us, gave us a little bit of energy, a little bit of hope,” Bluiett said. “We knew when we got them that we were starting to get our mojo back, everything was starting to come back.”
Having Bluiett back to form has been a huge boost. He scored 50 points in the two NCAA Tournament wins, going 15 of 29 from the field and 8 of 15 from beyond the arc against defenses geared to contain him.
“You can see his confidence level,” Mack said. “He just makes us a very, very difficult team to defend when he’s on the floor. It seems like there’s so much attention paid to him, it opens other guys up. He’s really made strides on the defensive end and played like a winner, and that’s what you need at this time of the year.”
It’ll be only the second time that the Musketeers have played Miller’s Arizona team. They also met in a regional semifinal two years ago, with Arizona pulling away at the end for a 68-60 victory at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Mack was Miller’s top assistant for five years at Xavier, and the two of them stay in touch.
The Musketeers are the only double-digit seed left in the tournament — South Carolina and Michigan are the next-highest at No. 7. Xavier has reached the Elite Eight but never a Final Four. A No. 11 seed has reached the Final Four three times: Louisiana State in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011.
Given what they’ve had to handle, it’s surprising that they’re still standing.
“Despite all the adversity they’ve been hit with and the social media that tells them how bad they are and how poor they are, they stayed with it,” Mack said. “It’s a credit to them, and I’m just really proud of them.”