Russell: Xavier's Elite Eight run ends but future is bright

When a freight train like Gonzaga speeds along, directly in the path of a Final Four bid, there are nights when there’s no stopping its momentum.

For Xavier, that was Saturday. The 11th-seeded Musketeers’ inspired NCAA tournament run ended in an 83-59 defeat by the Bulldogs, the West Region’s top-seeded team, in an Elite Eight showdown in San Jose.

History was going to be made either way, as Gonzaga and Xavier were angling for program-first trips to the Final Four. The Musketeers’ sheer jubilation after defeating Arizona in the Sweet 16 dissolved into incomparable devastation following the final buzzer of an Elite Eight game they never controlled.

Mark Few’s 36-1 team was the real deal. It wasn’t just that Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points, or Johnathan Williams added 19. It was also 7-foot-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski’s smart passing and the team’s ability to drain threes.

Xavier didn’t play well. But if it had, would it have made a difference?

“(The) second half, we just couldn't score,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “And a team that’s 290th in the country relying on 3-point shots goes 12-for-24, 50 percent from the 3-point line. You’re not going to win against many teams with their size when they’re shooting it that well.”

An XU team that many dismissed after Edmond Sumner’s Jan. 29 ACL tear found a way to play its best basketball in March. In Mack’s finest coaching season, the Musketeers rallied from injuries, Myles Davis’ return and departure, Sumner’s knee, Trevon Bluiett’s ankle sprain and a six-game skid that left the postseason in question.

In San Jose, the Musketeers played their last game with senior RaShid Gaston and graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard. Both started their careers elsewhere and chose Xavier in hopes of competing in an NCAA tournament.

A big question remains: Who else won't be back? Specifically, what of Bluiett and Sumner?

Bluiett tested the NBA draft waters after last season, gained valuable feedback, led Xavier in scoring this season (18.5 ppg) and likely upped his draft stock through his postseason play. He’s listed as a potential NBA draft second-round pick on at least one mock draft.

Sumner underwent surgery March 1 to repair his torn ACL. Although he dropped of 2017 mock drafts, he remains a projected first-round draft pick in 2018. He has two years of eligibility remaining but the lengthy rehab process could affect Sumner’s decision to return.

In the meantime, Mack and has staff have inked a heralded recruiting class. The consensus Top 10 group features 6-foot-3 guard Paul Scruggs, 6-5 guard Elias Harden, 6-6 forward Naji Marshall, 6-7 forward Jared Ridder and 6-10 center Kentrevious Jones.

Junior college transfer Brady Ernst committed in January. The 6-9 forward started his career at Iowa State but tore his ACL as a high school senior and red-shirted as a Cyclones freshman. He'll arrive at Xavier with three years of eligibility.

The additions are slated to enhance a Musketeers team with a core of major talent. The growth of Quentin Goodin in his trial-by-fire as the starting point guard after Sumner’s injury was immense in the last two months. Fellow freshman Tyrique Jones showed explosive moments and will be a key cog in the frontcourt once he minimizes fouls.

Factor in the veteran play of J.P. Macura, Kaiser Gates and Sean O’Mara, and the Musketeers are in good shape to challenge for a Big East title.

None of that likely was on the Musketeers’ minds in their last moments in San Jose. As their hopes for a Final Four dissolved, Mack expressed his pride in the team in a post-game press conference.

He even shared a rare glimpse into how the late-season skid affected Xavier’s coaches. After falling to Marquette on senior day, the Musketeers were 8-9 in the Big East and facing a must-win outing at DePaul.

Xavier took care of business in a 79-65 victory.

“The weight of the world on our guys’ shoulders. They don’t know this, but there’s a coaches’ locker room and players’ locker room at Allstate Arena,” Mack said. “After we won the game, usually the players go in their room and we go in ours as coaches. And I closed the door, and our coaching staff is in there, I started jumping up and down saying, ‘We won! We won! We won!’”

Counting that victory, Xavier went 6-2 the rest of the month and returned to the Elite Eight for the third time in school history. A team that narrowly avoided a First Four game in Dayton defied odds-makers all the way to the season’s end.

“To think that our team, which everybody had us dead to right, was able to continue to believe, make the tournament and get to the point where we were playing for the Final Four – I’m extremely proud of this group,” Mack said.

And with that came the closure of a tremendous season.

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