By Kyle Beery
In an NCAA Tournament that hasn’t really had a prototypical underdog team from a mid-major conference, the Xavier Musketeers finally stole the spotlight.
The 11th-seeded Musketeers — a team that went into free fall down the final stretch of the regular season — beat No. 2 seed Arizona Thursday night to advance to their third Elite Eight in program history.
Xavier was hardly on the casual fan’s radar heading into the NCAA Tournament. The team lost six games in a row before beating DePaul in its regular season finale to finish seventh in the Big East. The Musketeers turned around and beat the Blue Demons again a few days later in the first round of the Big East Tournament, and then notched a much-needed signature win over rival Butler in the conference quarterfinals.
Without that win over the Bulldogs, the Musketeers may have missed the Big Dance.
Xavier has been playing without point guard Edmond Sumner (15 points, five assists per game) since he tore his ACL in late January. Again, this looked like a team that was just happy to limp into the NCAA Tournament.
To Big East fans, the upset probably didn’t come as that big of a surprise. Xavier may have been under-seeded, but not under-respected among the league. After all, this is a team that garnered a top-10 ranking in the Preseason AP Top 25 and began the season 13-2.
This is a team that had four wins against the RPI top 50 and came within 13 combined points of having three more such wins.
Without Sumner, one player in particular has stepped up for the Musketeers, and he carried his team on Thursday. Trevon Bluiett, named to the All-Big East First Team, went off for a game-high 25 points in the win over Arizona.
He, along with sidekicks J.P. Macura (14.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG) and RaShid Gaston (7.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG), have largely gone overlooked during the Musketeers’ run, and now they have their team one win over 1-seed Gonzaga away from the school’s first Final Four appearance.
It’s safe to say that the Musketeers went overlooked this postseason, and part of the reason for that comes from the stigma that the Big East is not a premiere conference like it used to be.
Sure, that may be true. This isn’t the same conference that sent a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. There’s no Syracuse, Louisville, UConn or Pittsburgh consistently earning a No. 1 seed. No Boeheim, no Pitino patrolling the sidelines. No Kemba Walker, no Peyton Siva, etc.
But this is still very much a relevant conference. No one believed in the Big East last season, and Villanova went on to win the National Championship Game over North Carolina.
Jay Wright, Chris Holtmann, Chris Mack, and a host of other coaches have made names for themselves. Over the last few years since realignment, the Big East has produced stars like Josh Hart, Doug McDermott and Kris Dunn.
Not to mention countless other players who have had great careers, like Kellen Dunham at Butler, Isaiah Whitehead at Seton Hall, and now Bluiett. All under the radar, but all fantastic players.
Seven of the league’s 10 teams earned bids to the NCAA Tournament this season. That’s 70 percent of the league.
Granted, the Big East didn’t have the strongest showing in the first weekend, going 5-5, including losing its marquee team in No. 1 overall seeded Villanova (although the Wildcats fell victim to a heavily under-seeded Wisconsin team).
But getting 70 percent of your league into the tournament certainly shows your worth. The Big East was the third-best conference this season, according to ESPN’s BPI, behind only the ACC and Big 12.
Xavier backed that up with its huge win on Thursday. Butler has a chance to “shock the world” again Friday when the fourth-seeded Bulldogs face No. 1 seed North Carolina in Memphis.
The Bulldogs had a quietly good season, notching two wins over Villanova, a neutral-site win over Arizona, and another quality win over Cincinnati. In total, the Bulldogs went 16-5 against the RPI top 100.
Even with a top-25 adjusted offensive efficiency (117.8 points per 100 possessions), the Bulldogs have also been a little overlooked this year, mainly because of a pair of ugly losses against St. John’s and Indiana State and a mid-season stumble in which they lost three of four games. The casual fan outside the Big East sees that and immediately writes it off as “not elite.”
A Big East fan looks at this and chalks it up as standard for the league.
Not many experts are giving Butler a chance on Friday, but, I’d like to remind you that, in the most loaded region in the bracket, Butler was the only team that did not trail at any time during the first weekend of the tournament.
I’d also like to remind you that no one expected Butler to make much noise in 2010. The Bulldogs came within inches of winning a national championship that year. Again in 2011, no one expected much. And again, they made the national title game.
But most fans don’t know the name Kamar Baldwin, a defensive-minded freshman with great scoring ability. Or Avery Woodson, a deadly three-point shooter returning to his former home in the FedEx Forum. Or Andrew Chrabascz, a senior with a nagging style of play that can bang with the bigs and step out for a long-range shot.
And those three guys, along with the rest of the Bulldogs’ fundamentally sound cast, have their team right where they want to be. Under the radar.
Minimal attention means maximum motivation.
I’m not saying the Bulldogs are a lock to knock off the Tar Heels in Memphis, but just don’t be surprised when it happens. Don’t sleep on this team. And don’t sleep on the Big East.