The role of the underdog suits the Xavier Musketeers quite well.
The Musketeers (23-13) are the No. 11 seed in the West Region of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and yet, while top teams like defending champion Villanova and the highly-regarded Duke Blue Devils bowed out of with losses over the weekend, Xavier is the lowest-seeded team to qualify for the Sweet 16.
“I don't even know where to start,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “I'm so excited for the guys next to me and the guys in the locker room. They earned it. Our team's gone through a lot of adversity this year, and we stayed the course.
“We had a meeting at the beginning of the year, and we talked about how tough of a feeling it was in St. Louis in that locker room when we lost to Wisconsin. Instead of just saying ‘attack,’ when we broke huddles, we wanted to talk about attacking and finishing. Man, we finished.”
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.
“I'm really proud of this group,” Mack said. “The biggest thing for us going into this game was to be able to take care of the ball, not get Florida State out in transition where they're phenomenal and try to keep them off the glass.
“We've been a pretty good rebounding team all year, but we never faced the size and athleticism we saw. We really passed the test in those two areas, and it gave us a chance to win. I thought guys played really loose on offense, and I'm really happy for these guys.”
Now, after fighting through all of the obstacles of the regular season and last two weeks of tournament play, the Musketeers find themselves back in the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in the last 12 years.
“I told them out in the real world, life is going to hand you lemons, and you can pout about it or figure out how to make lemonade,” Mack said.
“Our guys, despite all the adversity they've been hit with and the social media that tells them how bad they are and how poor they are, they stayed with it, and they believed in themselves and our coaching staff. It's a credit to them, and I'm just really proud of them.”
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