CINCINNATI — The Xavier men’s basketball program picked a good year to have one of the best teams in school history. There’s no dominant team in college basketball this year. There have been six different No. 1s in the rankings already this year.
The Muskies, 17-2 and having reached a school-high No. 5 in the AP poll, have played as well as any team in the country at times. UC coach Mick Cronin compared them to the NBA's Golden State Warriors. He was only being a bit facetious.
Xavier has had a couple of clunkers — a 30-point loss at Villanova and a 11-point home loss to Georgetown — but they’ve breezed through most games.
One reason is they’ve got a lot of weapons. Three guards — Trevor Bluiett (15.4 points per game), Edmond Sumner (11.3) and Myles Davis (10.9) — average in double figures and are three-point threats. Inside players 6-10 junior Jalen Reynolds (9.4 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) and 6-10 senior James Farr (10.8, 9.1) are forces as well.
This makes XU a dangerous team.
“They’re the kind of team that can make an Elite Eight, Final Four run,” said Seth Greenberg, the long-time coach and now an analyst for ESPN. “They put a lot of pressure on the defense because you have to guard five guys. Not a lot of teams have that.
"They’ve got a good mixture of maturity and youth. That two-headed monster with Farr and Reynolds is hard to deal with. Bluiett’s a tough matchup. And Sumner’s just scratching the surface of what he can do.”
Success in basketball is nothing new at Xavier. The Muskies are one of nine teams to make at least five Sweet 16s in the NCAA Tournament since 2008. Xavier has been to the NCAA nine of the last 10 years and 13 of the last 15.
The program really took off when the Muskies moved into Cintas Center. They sell out the 10,025 seats every night.
The crowd is raucous, thus the .871 winning percentage at home, which ranks in the top five nationally.
But the Muskies have never made it to the Final Four. They’ve come close. They made the Elite Eight in 2008 and 2004.
This year’s team started to get its first bit of national attention in late November in the AdvoCare Tournament in Orlando. Xavier beat Alabama by 19, Southern Cal by 20 and Dayton by 29 in successive days.
Byron Larkin, the former Xavier star and now the team's radio analyst, has been been impressed with this group.
“They’re one of more impressive Xavier teams, just because of their depth, their versatility,” Larkin said. “They hit you from all kinds of angles. There’s not one way you can play against them to stop them. They shoot from the outside. They can drive it. They’ve got some tough players on the low block. They rebound. They play defense.
“And (head coach) Chris Mack has done an extremely great job with them this year.”
This is Mack’s seventh year. He’s a local guy (St. Xavier class of 1988). He was a two-time captain under Pete Gillen at Xavier. Mack, 46, is 150-73 at Xavier.
This is a very good offensive team (79.6 point a game), but that’s not Mack’s calling card as a coach.
“Chris Mack’s teams always rebound and play good defense, so they’re a terrific rebounding and defensive team,” Greenberg said. “They’re so good at rebounding that you don’t get a lot of second shots. They have legitimate size and depth. Getting Sumner back really helps. He has so much potential.”
Xavier’s season flashed before them in a scary moment in the loss to Villanova. Sumner took a brutal spill and was carted off the court. He suffered a concussion and missed three games.
Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard, is this year’s big addition. He red-shirted last year after an injury ended his season after six games.
He’s shown no ill effects in the two games since returning after the spill.
“We know what he brings to the table,” Mack said. “He’s got great size, he’s intelligent, he’s quick. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense. It showed the fall had no effect on him. It’s one thing to say that. It’s another to put it into action. That puts to rest the doubt.”
Again, Xavier picked a good year to have a breakout season. Even the powers like Kentucky and Duke have struggled.
“This year is different in that no one has separated themselves,” Greenberg said. “This time of year, we’re usually seeing freshman-dominated teams emerging. That’s not the case this year."
Larkin said he sees Final Four potential in the team.
“Definitely,” he said. “Every team thinks that they can go to the Final Four but I don’t know if they really believe it. But this team, by the evidence of what they’ve done and everything, has come together. They have the talent. They have the chemistry. They’ve been lucky with injuries. All that comes into play for having a special year. Xavier has that going for them.”
Mack knows for this season to be truly special it depends on what happens in March. He could do without all the talk about how good Xavier is.
“It doesn’t make our job any easier going forward,” Mack said. “I said for the last month, two months, our quest is to continue to get better every single day. The force that works against you is when people are telling you how good you are. A year ago, we didn’t have that. It was the opposite. It’s a little bit of human nature to use hate to fuel your motivation.
“You’ve got to come to practice and want to get better. You have to have energy. I’m excited about this group. The challenge is to continue to improve, so you play your best basketball when the season means the most.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.