CINCINNATI — For a team like Xavier, the games in November, December, January and February are a build-up to the madness that is March.
The Muskies had a great year. They went 27-5. They knocked off a No. 1 team. They climbed the ratings. They filled reels of highlights. And broke a bunch of school records.
But the next two weekends will define them as a team.
Xavier was awarded No. 2 seed, the highest in school history, to the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. The Muskies will play 15th-seeded Weber State in St. Louis on Friday. Weber, 26-8, won the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
With the historically high seed, come historically high expectations. The Muskies went to Sweet 16 last year. Anything short of the Final Four will be a disappointment.
“That’s what we play all these games for: To get to this point,” coach Chris Mack said. “That doesn’t put anymore pressure on guys. We’ve got a pretty loose group. Pressure comes from within. We’re all competitors. It’s want-to for self-fulfillment, not the outside pressure. We don’t worry about that.
“You are defined by how you play in March in the NCAA Tournament. But it won’t take away the feeling I’ve had coaching this group. It’s been a fun group. We want to keep this thing rolling as long as we can.”
The players know they’ll be remember by how long they keep this rolling.
“We want to live in the moment but also realize what’s at stake,” senior James Farr said. “We don’t be one of those teams that has their name beside the upset alert. Weber State has nothing to lose. Fifteenth seed. They want to be one of those teams that knocks us off. Have fun. Be ready for what they have.”
Sunday was for enjoying the moment. The players gathered at Mack’s home to watch the long (emphasis on long) Selection Show on CBS.
“It’s amazing,” Myles Davis said. “It’s a great feeling. I’m proud of my guys — what we did in the regular season to make history at Xavier. We’re not done. We’re happy we’re a 2 seed, but it really didn’t matter where we were seeded.
“We’ll enjoy tonight. But we’ll get ready Weber State.”
Mack didn’t get too hung up on the seed.
“I didn’t have any expectation,” he said. “I’m not smart enough to know the difference between 2 seed, 3 seed, regional, all that stuff. We did best we could. I’m proud of our team. My coaching staff has done an incredible job all year along.
“Our players have had a great year. It was really irrelevant. The 2 seed, the 3 seed. We’re just happy to keep playing.”
This Xavier team has a chance to the best in school history. They Muskies have heard that talk since they started 12-0 and began climbing the national rankings.
Mack was asked it this is his best team.
“It’s been the the most-enjoyable team to coach,” he said. “I do think it’s the most cohesive team. I think in many ways it has been the best team I’ve coach. It’s been a really fun to coach. We haven’t won every game and we’ve had some poor outings — relative to what we’ve done in the majorities of poutings. But they come back the next day with a great attitude and a want-to to get better.”
That’s a good formula going in the tournament. But it’s more than that.
“Tournament is all about getting hot. Playing your best basketball when it matters most,” Mack said. “That’s what we aim to do. I’m sure match-ups have something to do with it. We only can control what we can control. That’s being ready for Weber State on Friday.
“I don’t take this step-back view of why teams do well. We get in tunnel and figure out how to beat this team Friday.”
As much success as the Muskies have had this year, the Big East Tournament — and the 87-83 loss to Seton Hall — was a reminder of how bad things can get.
“We couldn’t get in a track meet with those guys and hope to be successful,” Mack said. “Yet, we chose to do that. That was to our death. I couldn’t make it any clearer before the game. Hopefully, we learn from it.”
Mack will remind his team of that lesson many times this week. The Muskies will be a big favorite over Weber State. If the Muskies advance, they will be the favorite in the second round against the winner of Wisconsin-Pittsburgh game.
In fact, if seeding holds, the Muskies will be playing No. 1 seeded North Carolina in Elite Eight for a trip to the Final Four. Mack wasn’t about to let his guys think that way.
“Entitlement never wins in sports,” Mack said. “Really seeds don’t matter between the lines. It’s what you do between the lines.”
Most of the time this year, the Muskies have been very good between the lines.
“Look at the regular season: We knocked off some good teams,” senior Remy Abell said. “We had some downfall to. But this team when we’re locked in, playing as a team, hungry on the defense end. We can beat anyone in the country.
“We’ve got to leave everything on count.”