The Xavier Musketeers may not have been thinking about the 66-63 loss to the Wisconsin Badgers in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the lessons from that game served them quite well in the first weekend of this season’s competition.
The No. 11 seed in the West Region after mid-season struggles, the Musketeers won their opening-round game against the Maryland Terrapins, 76-65, and then, cruised past third-seeded Florida State, 91-66, in second-round play Saturday.
“I don't really think necessarily we were thinking about last year other than really we've just got to finish,” junior guard Trevon Bluiett said. “Like we've been preaching all year, we attack and finish, so we definitely wanted to make it out of this round, but I don't think necessarily too many people were thinking about last year.”
Xavier Musketeers embrace journey to latest NCAA Tournament appearance
Starting forward Tyrique Jones and reserve forward Kaiser Gates combined to score 27 points in the win over Florida State, which was well above their combined season average.
Jones converted six of his seven field-goal attempts on the way to 13 points. Additionally, Jones pulled down four rebounds and handed out one assist against just one turnover in 17 minutes against an aggressive Florida State defense.
Gates knocked down five of his six shots from the field, four of which were from beyond the three-point arc. Along with the 14 points, Gates grabbed five defensive rebounds and assisted on two other baskets for the Musketeers.
“From the jump, I just wanted to be aggressive,” Jones said. “If I could finish around the rim, I finished. That was basically it.”
Gates added, “I was trying to move a lot more without the ball than I usually do. We harped a lot on that in practice, and my guys found me in open spots, and I took my open shots.”
At one point in mid-January, it seemed as though Xavier was lost on the court and would play its way out of NCAA Tournament contention.
But after losses to conference foes in Villanova, Butler and Creighton, whom held Nos. 1, 4 and 6 seeds in other brackets of the NCAA Tournament, the Musketeers righted the ship and won five of their next six outings.
A six-game losing streak sent Xavier into the Big East Tournament reeling, but the Musketeers rebounded with a double-digit win over DePaul, and then, knocked off the No. 2 seed in the tournament, Butler, before dropping a three-point decision to Creighton.
Already down a pair of players, one to injury and another to a mid-season departure, the Musketeers were limited to an eight-man rotation, but Trevon Bluiett and Sean O’Mara combined to score 39 points as Xavier knocked off the Maryland Terrapins (24-9), 76-65, at Amway Arena in Orlando Thursday night.
Then, the Musketeers blew out the third-seeded Florida State Seminoles, 91-66, in second-round play on the way to their sixth Sweet 16 appearance in the last 12 years.
“That's one of the reasons I love this team because all the way down the line, everybody's tough,” guard J.P. Macura said. “Everybody loves to win and play hard, and I think that we showed that this past month. I'm just excited for everybody in this program that we're moving forward.
“We've really got to lock in the details going forward and just continue to play hard.”