The Xavier Musketeers have become a consistent NCAA Tournament participant over the last decade, but getting to March is not always easy.
The Musketeers have been here before, but they are not taking for granted another trip to the NCAA Tournament, especially not after the struggles of the regular season, which featured three and six-game losing streaks since the calendar flipped to January of 2017.
“We’re excited to be here in Orlando, Florida, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the country,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “It never gets old being in the NCAA Tournament. I think our players can appreciate that. Every team has to earn it, and all 68 teams did, and we’re excited to be a part of it.”
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.
“We feel good up until a point, and we have to worry about (Maryland),” Mack said. “I think this team learned a lot about itself in New York. Amidst a lot of outsiders saying we weren’t heading in the right direction, I thought we battled.
“I thought we played extremely hard. We were a possession away from playing for a Big East Championship. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter at 6:50. Our team recognizes that, but I think our team’s grown immensely here over the last couple of weeks.”
Despite their struggles, the Musketeers earned the No. 11 seed in the West Region, and will take on the Maryland Terrapins out of the Big Ten Conference in first-round play.
But in order to advance, the Musketeers will need a continued effort from everyone who steps on the floor because their second-leading scorer, point guard Edmond Sumner, remains sidelined for the balance of the year because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
“I think what people inside the program can appreciate is all the adversity that we went through,” Mack said. “It’s one thing that, when you put a product on the floor, a team on the floor, that’s trying to reach its goals, it’s very difficult when your best playmaker, your most experienced playmaker, goes out for a season-ending injury. And then, on top of it, you lose your leading scorer for a couple of weeks against a very, very tough stretch of teams that we played.
“We didn’t have 12, 13 scholarship players. Our walk-ons tried their best, but it’s just a different experience in terms of how we usually, normally practice, as you know. But, again, our team, like a lot of teams, has come together at the most important time of the year. We’ll find out what we’re made of against a very good Maryland team.”
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