Hours after the most significant victory in its 15-year history, a tranquility enveloped the Cintas Center. The only sounds were the sequenced, hushed brooming of the maintenance crew and the howling of a harsh winter wind lying just beyond the glass door of the arena’s front entrance. The atmosphere stood in stark contrast to the scene earlier in the evening, when a cutthroat throng of 10,727 fans played a hand in No. 5 Xavier’s 90-83 upset of No. 1 Villanova, the program’s first triumph over a top-ranked team since the Musketeers upended 27-0 St. Joseph’s in the 2004 Atlantic 10 Tournament.
There are hyped sports crowds, and then there are collections of paid customers like the one that awaited Villanova on that cold night in late February, an aura evocative of the Colosseum horde in Gladiator. The Xavier faithful roared with disdain as the visiting Wildcats took to the floor. Minutes later, the Musketeers were introduced in cahoots with pyrotechnics and a rowdy student section, clad in matching white t-shirts, swaying in rhythm and crooning along to Archie Eversole’s ‘We Ready.’
Xavier’s basketball program began in 1920. Forty-one years passed before the Musketeers reached their first NCAA Tournament, and another 25 elapsed before Xavier’s initial NCAA Tournament win in 1987. From 1985-86 through 1999-00, the Musketeers did tally nine Metro City Conference/Atlantic 10 regular-season conference championships, played in three National Invitational Tournaments, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament on 10 occasions. Yet only once did they qualify for the Sweet 16 during that stretch.
But starting with Skip Prosser’s final season in 2000-01, the Musketeers progressed to new heights. They had the National Player the Year, David West, in 2003. They’ve won seven Atlantic 10 regular season crowns. And they’ve appeared in 13 NCAA Tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 six times. The Musketeers have even come within one game of that breakthrough win to the Final Four, advancing to the Elite Eight in 2004 and 2008, falling to a Duke squad littered with NBA lottery picks the first time around, then a Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love-led UCLA the next.
At the moment, Xavier is 26-4, with a solid chance of surpassing the 2007-08 team’s program record of 30 wins by season’s end. Having never secured higher than a No. 3 seed, the Musketeers are on track for a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance come Selection Sunday, with a No. 1 seed in play if Xavier claims the Big East Tournament crown this week at Madison Square Garden. And the words ‘final’ and ‘four’ are being mentioned in the same breath in and around the Cintas Center, and for good reason: the Musketeers are Final Four-good
But how exactly did this happen?
The last time I checked, we haven’t littered our roster with McDonald’s All-Americans,” says head coach Chris Mack.
So how has Xavier, which finished tied for sixth in the Atlantic 10 just four seasons ago, flourished into a bona fide contender after just three years in the renovated Big East?
The answer is player development. While the move to the Big East has not necessarily paid dividends in wooing five-star prospects—so far, they’ve recruited the same caliber of players they had in the A-10—the Musketeers are accustomed to playing in bigger games. Road games at Fordham, Massachusetts, and St. Bonaventure have been replaced with contests at Butler, Providence, and Villanova. Harsher environments force players into uncomfortable situations more often. They have to show out or bow out. More often than not, Xavier shows out.
Mack doesn’t like the phrase ‘buy-in’, a popular one in the sporting universe—“We’re not selling anything,” says Mack—but professed that he has “fun” coaching this team, a revealing statement considering that ‘fun’ and ‘coaching’ typically don’t find their way into the same quote this time of year.
“We have guys that love the game, that don’t have all the answers, and want to be coached,” says Mack.
Exhibit A of Xavier’s player development prowess is Edmond Sumner, Xavier’s dynamic 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman point guard.
A year ago, Sumner was an unknown asset. The former four-star recruit from Detroit spent most of the season recovering from patellar tendinitis in his knees, using a variety of exercises—activities that included running on a treadmill constructed for astronauts—to strengthen and stabilize his ailing leg joints.
Now, averaging 11 points and a tick over three rebounds and three assists per game, Sumner is one of the straws that stirs Xavier’s ebullient ball movement on offense. He also provides the Musketeers with a welcome zest from its ball handlers, evidenced by the first-step burst that fueled a throwdown over 6-foot-10 Cincinnati forward Octavius Ellis.
After tallying 24 assists on 30 made shots and reaching the 90-point plateau for the sixth time this season against Villanova, Mack was in no mood to disagree that his team’s high-powered offense is fueled by Sumner—who had 19 points, a season-high nine assists, and six rebounds—and his merciless dynamism with the ball.
“I truly believe we have a special passing team, a willing passing team—and he’s the catalyst,” said Mack.
Then there’s sophomore guard J.P. Macura. Repeatedly referred to as “fearless” by Mack after scoring 19 points opposite Villanova, Macura fulfills all of the stereotypes analysts generally reserve for white athletes (gritty, hard-nosed, scrappy), but he is much more than that. Macura is a habitual line-toer, whether for his propensity to sink ill-advised shots or his abrasive, unrelenting style of play.
“From the time he’s stepped onto the court, he’s never been afraid of the moment. He almost needs to be at times, because he can get a little loose,” says Mack. “I’ve talked to him (about) with two or three minutes left and we’re milking a nine or 10-point lead, we don’t need an up-and-under reverse layup in traffic with 25 seconds on the shot clock.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody,” he adds. “The moment is never too big for him.”
Still, senior forward James Farr is perhaps the archetype of Xavier’s developmental success.
Two years ago, the 6-10, 244-pound Farr was averaging nearly six fouls and five 3-point attempts for every 40 minutes he played. This season, Farr has finally realized his basketball home is in the paint, registering over 15 rebounds for every 40 minutes of action, along with a career-best 10.5 points per game. He’s jacked just seven 3-pointers all season.
“When you see guys like James Farr, how far he’s come—pardon the pun—it excites you as a coach. It makes you feel good,” says Mack. “That’s what you sold them when you talked to them during recruiting.”
The list goes on: junior sharpshooter Myles Davis, sophomore swingman Trevon Bluiett, junior forward Jalen Reynolds, versatile freshman Kaiser Gates, and steady senior guard Remy Abell round out a cohesive, ego-less unit. The impact on offense is obvious, where six players scored in double figures against Villanova. For the season, the Musketeers are 20-0 when at least four players score 10 or more points in the same contest.
“This team is so deep that anybody could score 15 or 20 on any given night,” says Farr. “All we care about is winning. That’s why we’ve seen the fruits of our labor this year—we want to win.”
Even in February, a No. 1 vs. No. 5 matchup is cause for considerable hoopla. Fox Sports 1 conducted a pre- and postgame show on the Cintas Center floor, a scene typically reserved for college basketball’s hallowed grounds—places like Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse, Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, or Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.
Perhaps the Musketeers were a bit too amped to kick things off, flailing a bit on the defensive end. After the opposing Wildcats sank eight of their first 11 field goal attempts, Mt. Mack called a timeout and subsequently erupted, an equal opportunity screamer to each of his players.
The tide shifted. Midway through the first half, Macura stole an inbounds pass and finished over Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, drawing a foul for good measure before strolling toward the Xavier student section and signaling for the volume to be turned up. Later in the half, Macura nailed a pair of triples to push the Musketeers’ advantage to nine, forcing a Villanova timeout. Cintas roared. As Macura found a seat in Xavier’s huddle, a few towel-wielding Musketeers attempted to cool down their simmering teammate.
The second half was more of the same entertaining freneticism as the first half, but Xavier refused to relinquish its lead. Farr delivered the killshot, slamming home a dish from a slicing Sumner with just under four minutes left to put the Musketeers up 14. As Sumner’s free throw found the bottom of the net to lend Xavier its 90th point with only 23 seconds left, the student section caroled.
Na na na na.
Na na na na.
Hey hey hey.
There is a chance that the 2015-16 season could be the start of an exceptional run for Xavier. Mack, who grew up in Cincinnati and played for the Musketeers, has had chances to leave but chose to stay; in January 2015, Mack’s job was endowed by a private donation, ensuring that the 46-year-old will always be well-compensated. And of the 10 players to log at least 200 minutes this season, eight could return in 2016-17, joined by a pair of four-star recruits and transfer RaShid Gaston, who averaged almost 16 points and 10 rebounds per game for Norfolk State in 2014-15.
For now, Mack is mum on expectations the team has set for itself—“We set goals, but we generally keep those goals inside our locker room,” he says—but given the technological reaches of modern society, he can only corral so much of the burgeoning hype surrounding his squad. Not that Mack feels the need to enact such parameters.
“Our guys’ attention spans are this big,” says Mack, placing his hands in close proximity to one another. “[The coaches are] looking at [ESPN bracketologist Joe] Lunardi, and they’re probably looking at rap videos on YouTube or something. It doesn’t faze them.”
At times, it shows. Four days after its headline-grabbing win over Villanova, Xavier was jumped by a desperate Seton Hall team in New Jersey, then bounced back on Saturday by dropping a season-high 98 points on Creighton. Such swings are the reality for Division I college basketball this season—it’s evident that there are no ‘elite’ teams. Xavier’s loss at Seton Hall was the 72nd defeat for top 10 squad this year, establishing a new single-season mark. A record six different teams have been ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, and if the season had ended Sunday, Virginia’s Pythagorean rating of .9485 would be the lowest for any top-ranked team in the 15-year history of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. It would have ranked seventh in the final 2015 list.
In other words, this could be the ideal year for a squad like Xavier to snatch a championship trophy that’s more or less up for grabs. Post-Villanova, Mack both acknowledged and deflected the gravity of his program’s first home victory over a No. 1 team since the Musketeers felled Cincinnati in the 1999 Crosstown Shootout at the Cincinnati Gardens, allowing himself the same Final Four dreams harbored by the Xavier faithful.
“Ten, 15, 20 years from now, they’ll remember this. But we have bigger fish to fry,” said Mack. “We have a group that knows if they continue to get better, the sky is the limit.”