The men's basketball team at Xavier University made previous Sweet 16 appearances in 1990 and 2004 with fine teams that overachieved. As such, they were uninvited guests, crashers at the Sweet 16 party, pretenders and imposters, wannabes and interlopers.
The Musketeers played way ahead of seeds and expectations to reach this point in '90 and '04. Name the Sweet 16 heroes of Xavier past -- Derek Strong, Jamal Walker, Tyrone Hill, Lionel Chalmers, Anthony Myles, Romain Sato and others -- and they're fondly remembered for taking Xavier past its place.
The 1990 Musketeers went to the Midwest Regional as the sixth seed for winning the fabled Midwestern Collegiate Conference. After their opening win over Kansas State, they upset mighty Georgetown for Xavier's greatest basketball win in history to that point. But the Muskies bowed out in the next round with a 102-89 loss to Texas.
The 2004 Musketeers sat 10-9 in January, apparently going nowhere, before three seniors turned it up and triggered 13 wins in 14 games entering the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA seeded Xavier seventh in the Atlanta Regional, where the Musketeers beat Louisville and Mississippi State for a Sweet 16 rematch with Texas.
This time, the Muskies won. But Duke took them down one game short of the Final Four.
Good times. Traditionally, pulling for Xavier at tournament time is pulling for the underdog. It's fun watching Cinderella team go to the Sweet 16. Whenever a team plays better than the tournament expects, it's a tribute to grit and focus.
But this is better. The year's Sweet 16 appearance for Xavier is no such tribute. Paying tribute to grit and focus has lost its charm after 20 years, and it's about time that Xavier has taken the next step as a national quality team playing seriously for the national championship simply because it's that good.
We're seeing a new kind of tournament run for Xavier, different from any that we've ever seen. They're not the little team that could. Indeed, if they lost Thursday it would be an upset.
One feels as though Xavier has changed its name and colors. Seeing XU not just as a tournament favorite but playing like a favorite, one sees a long way into the tournament's future, even if that future includes UCLA, Memphis and North Carolina.
Xavier opened the tournament March 20 against Georgia, the last team in after winning four times in four days to take the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Xavier led for the first five minutes, then Georgia built a 46-36 lead with 14:53 remaining. The X-Men went on a rampage, outscoring Georgia 37-15 over the duration for a 73-61 win.
The box score reveals that Josh Duncan, starting for the first time in months, led the way with 20 points and eight rebounds, followed by Derrick Brown with 19 points and 11 rebounds. But did you notice who Xavier Coach Sean Miller absolutely wanted in that game down the stretch?
For the last 14:53, Miller made 30 substitutions, mostly rotating Duncan, Brown, C.J. Anderson, B.J. Raymond and Jason Love along the front line. Even Drew Lavender sat out about 3:30. But Stanley Burrell took one breather lasting 35 seconds.
As the Musketeers took back the game, Burrell made three of four free throws, adding two steals, four assists, a defensive rebound and lockdown defense on the players he guarded. He finished the game with three points and couldn't have been more instrumental.
Xavier's 85-78 win against Purdue March 22 demonstrated the more customary balance with 18 points each for Anderson and Lavender, 16 for Duncan and 11 for Burrell. The Muskies took Purdue's early shot, a 12-2 run to start the game, then rallied to a 60-50 lead with 8:33 remaining.
But Purdue came back with an even better shot, 11 straight points for a 61-60 lead. Then Lavender took over with two baskets and eight-of-eight free throw shooting down the stretch. Xavier built the lead back to 75-66 with 1:18 left, then held on through an excruciating, extended final minute.
Next up, the Musketeers will meet their old rival, former UC coach Bob Huggins with his hometown team, alma mater and final landing, the West Virginia Mountaineers. Huggins is building a new layer of heroism in West Virginia with an unlikely Sweet 16 in his first year there, and the talent he left behind at Kansas State isn't bad either.
Probably, given a choice, one would rather see Xavier play Duke, simply because Duke showed such compelling flaws in the last two weeks. Obviously, Huggins capitalized on those flaws in West Virginia's 73-67 win over Duke March 22. Xavier could have done it just as well.
Instead, we get this Cincinnati-flavored matchup between Xavier's ascension and Huggins' return to national prominence. If we can't have Huggins and UC trying to foil each other, then Huggins and Xavier trying to foil each other is nice substitute.
Only once before has Xavier started the year with a club so well regarded, opening the 1997-98 season ranked seventh by the Associated Press. But that team never found stride and bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It's no longer heartening for Xavier to win every game along the way. It's expected, for at least another round.
Xavier should survive against Huggins' tough Mountaineers, and if they can handle that then top-seeded UCLA in the next round is a winnable game. Like no other XU team to go Sweet 16, we can say this one is a true Final Four contender with or without magic dust.
Xavier holds the seventh best RPI of the tournament's remaining teams, and it's tied for the seventh highest seed. Of the 16 remaining teams, 11 have reached this point in accord with seed, including Xavier.
Some other year, Xavier might have been Davidson, Western Kentucky or even West Virginia. This year, XU is Wisconsin, Louisville or Stanford.
Xavier is a contender rather than a Cinderella. Like most of the contenders, they've competed like they're supposed to win. Cinderella never looked so good.
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