Russell: Xavier Musketeers hope to get the last word in NCAA Tournament

Last team to hear its name called

CINCINNATI - Xavier’s adversity-filled season had its share of valleys, but few were as difficult for players and coaches as waiting for their name to be called on Sunday’s CBS Selection Show.

The Musketeers (21-13) were confident they’d made the NCAA tournament field based on the work they’d done in the regular season. So they bided their time as the East Region pairings were announced, and then the Midwest, and then the South.

No Xavier.

Finally, in the last match-up of the West Region – and after a long pause – the Musketeers were revealed as an 11-seed. They play sixth-seeded Maryland (24-8) at 6:50 p.m. Thursday in Orlando in a TNT-televised game.

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The team breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“It was kind of nerve-wracking. We were holding our breath,” junior Trevon Bluiett said. “But at the end of the day we got it called and it was like one of the best feelings ever.”

The Musketeers secured the program’s 11th NCAA tournament appearance in the last 12 years and 27th overall, but not without a fair amount of drama.

The team nearly jeopardized its postseason chances by losing six straight games during a time it should have started to peak. The reasons were numerous, from the loss of point guard Edmond Sumner (ACL tear) to the right ankle sprain that hobbled Bluiett in some games and kept him out of others.

Before that, the return of indefinitely suspended guard Myles Davis fizzled after three games. Eventually the combination of injuries and depth issues, particularly at the guard position, required freshman Quentin Goodin to man the starting point guard role with junior guard J.P. Macura as his back-up.

Goodin improved greatly as his minutes increased and fellow freshman Tyrique Jones, too, developed later in the season. Leading scorers Bluiett and Macura made XU a difficult opponent to defend.

Xavier also struggled with live-ball turnovers and the points opponents scored off them. Some days the team defense was efficient. Other times it wasn’t.

Critics questioned Xavier’s mettle even after it ended its skid with a regular-season finale victory at DePaul. Its last win before the skid was also against the Big East cellar-dwelling Blue Demons, ranked a lowly 236 in the RPI.

Xavier dispatched DePaul a third time in the Big East Tournament in New York and claimed a quality win over Butler before losing to Creighton. The confidence – and resume-padding performances – gained by the 2-1 trip helped poise the Musketeers for the NCAA tournament bid.

“I thought our first half against DePaul was nerves,” coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t play very well. But I thought we sort of calmed down the second half. From that point on, whether it was the Butler game, the Creighton game – both of those games could have gone either way. But we were also playing two very, very good teams. And so I’m proud of our group for continuing to play, continuing to get better, to compete the way they did, and it was a fun group to coach over the weekend.”

Bluiett believes Xavier is playing its best basketball now. That bode wells for the Musketeers against the Terrapins, which have lost four of their last six games including a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal against Northwestern.

Maryland is led by 6-foot-3 guard Melo Trimble (17 points per game, 3.7 apg), 6-foot guard Anthony Cowan (10.5 ppg) and 6-7 forward Justin Jackson (10.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg). Two Terps – Cowan and Kevin Huerter – were recruited by Xavier.

While many of the Musketeers have played in the Big Dance before, the experience will be new for two of their most veteran players. RaShid Gaston and Malcolm Bernard were all smiles after learning Xavier was tournament bound. Both transferred to Xavier to use their final year of eligibility.

“I’m super-excited, honestly, if you can’t tell by the big smile on my face. The feeling is surreal. It’s unbelievable and I’m really excited for the opportunity,” Gaston said.

The team’s conference tournament loss was a reminder of the win-or-go-home nature of the postseason, a sting the Musketeers aren’t eager to reprise anytime soon. Mack said the team would spend the next few days continuing to improve as it prepared for Maryland.

His message to the team after the Selection Show?

“It really doesn’t matter what the number is in front of your team name, just like it didn’t last year when we played Wisconsin. Just like it didn’t for Syracuse when they made the Final Four,” Mack said. “We just have to be better than Maryland, which is easier said than done, on Thursday.”

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