The road to the 2017 NCAA Tournament has been anything but smooth for the Xavier Musketeers, but with the past behind them, they are squarely focused on the future.
And the future for the Musketeers (21-13) continues tonight with a first-round matchup with the Maryland Terrapins in Orlando, Florida.
“Coach Mack has done a great job of letting us know that everything is a business trip, that we came down here to win games,” senior forward RaShid Gaston said.
“Obviously, being me and Malcolm’s first time, it’s really exciting. We’re trying to soak it all in and take everything in for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just realize that we obviously want to continue playing into March and want to try to continue to win games.”
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 hold 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.
“Before beating Butler, I think our last three wins were against DePaul,” junior guard Trevon Bluiett said. “To be able to beat Butler kind of sparked us, gave us a little bit of energy, a little bit of hope because that was a top-20 team, four seed in the tournament. We knew, when we got them, we were starting to get our mojo back. Everything was starting to come back, and I think that kind of helped us a lot as far as confidence moving down the road.”
Senior guard Malcolm Bernard added, “I would say the lowest point definitely had to be losing to Providence. I felt like that was pretty low for us because we went into that game thinking we were going to win, and we lost that game. Then, obviously, we lost to Marquette like right after, I believe, so that kind of like made things a lot worse.”
But through the struggles of the season, which included a season-ending injury to point guard Edmond Sumner, the Musketeers never lost sight of the ultimate goal, making the NCAA Tournament for the 11th time in the last 12 years. And the players credit Coach Mack with keeping everything in perspective.
“I would say he’s very straightforward,” junior guard J.P. Macura said. “If he has a point in the huddle, he’s going to get across to you. And just that alone really helps everyone on the team. He’s going to let us know what we need to do, and we do it.
Bluiett added, “As he’s telling us, he’s building confidence in us, telling us, ‘We’ve still got this game,’ no matter what the score. We just focus on that first, that four-minute war, whichever war we’re in. He gives it to us straight up, and we feed off that.”
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