During Xavier’s disappointing back half of the regular season, the Musketeers seemed to imitate one of their former players, Kenny Frease. As a Musketeer from 2008 to 2012, Frease ran slightly hunched over, like he was trying to sneak up the floor unnoticed. It was a posture my Xavier-alumnus father referred to as “Stealth Mode.” But Frease was 7 feet and 265 pounds as a freshman, so you can imagine how well that worked out for him.
This season’s Musketeers deployed their own version of Stealth Mode. After slipping and sliding their way through a six-game losing streak during the final weeks of the regular season, they hoped no one would notice as they were put on bubble watch. Finally, after two Big East tournament wins, Xavier quietly earned an 11-seed in the West region. But while Frease is still slinking up the courts of Jena, Germany, for the city’s club team, through two NCAA tournament wins, Xavier is standing upright.
The man behind the change in disposition is Trevon Bluiett, and his game isn’t flying under anyone’s radar. The 6-foot-6 junior guard has led the Musketeers to wins over Maryland (21 points, four steals) and Florida State (29 points, three assists, six rebounds) for Xavier’s eighth Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
Bluiett’s individual efforts throughout the season were incredible. He knocked down game winners and had 15 20-point games in the regular season, including a 40-point Hulk-out against Cincinnati. And he accomplished all this while battling an ankle sprain he suffered on January 16 against Creighton. His seemingly magical ability to will Xavier to victory is more terrifying than any on-court attribute, but he’s got plenty of those too. The Musketeers are the tournament’s lowest remaining seed, but with Bluiett at the helm, they are looking more and more like the ones to beat.
When it comes to change, Bluiett has been the rock and the pressure and the diamond all at once. According to Cincinnati.com’s Shannon Russell, the Indianapolis native weighed in at 218 pounds by the end of his lackluster first season with Xavier. Knowing it would stifle his potential, Bluiett dieted and trained himself down to 205 that summer. “Last year I would say I kind of let my team down, fluctuating with my weight. I just wasn’t all in,” Bluiett told Russell at the start of his sophomore season.
What he lost in postgame pizza nights he gained in impressive box scores. As a sophomore, he increased his production from 11 points per contest to 15.1, averaged almost two more rebounds, became a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and was named to the All–Big East first team.
But even then, Xavier head coach Chris Mack saw potential for more. “If basketball means that much to you, you’re gonna do more than just get in the gym and shoot,” Mack said in an FS1 feature on Bluiett. “You’re gonna get in the weight room, you’re gonna listen to your nutritionist, and that’s exactly what happened to Trevon.” Sure enough, after another summer devoted to his health, he entered this season a lethal 198 pounds. A stone-cold assassin.
“I knew eventually it was gonna pay off,” Bluiett said in the same feature. “It was just a matter of being mentally tough.”
Just as it started looking like Bluiett and his running mate, sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner, would lead Xavier to a special year, Sumner went down with a season-ending ACL tear against St. John’s on January 29. Through that point in the season, Xavier had amassed a 15–6 record with the pair as its leading scorers. Without Sumner, the Musketeers went 4–6.
The injury required another round of improvements in Bluiett. It was time for the “next man up” as Mack said, and Bluiett became that man. His role as a facilitator grew, as he dished out more assists and earned first-team all-conference recognition for the second consecutive season, now as the sole focal point of the Musketeers offense.
I’ve been on the court for countless game-winning 3-point heaves, so I knew exactly how the Musketeers probably felt when Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig hit a buzzer-beating baseline dagger to knock them out in the second round of last season’s tournament. Granted, when I lose like that, it’s to my brother and it’s in our driveway and he’s Nick Young (celebration and all) and I’m Manu Ginobili, but the devastation is there all the same — he is my younger brother after all.
Xavier was a top-five team by the 2016 season’s end and earned the no. 2 seed in the East region. The team registered the second-most wins in program history, and this was supposed to be The Year — if not for a title then at least for a deep run in the tourney. But the Badgers held Bluiett to just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting and The Year ended in cold blood. He didn’t even flinch when the shot went up. Everyone knew.
“I knew it was good,” Mack said after the game. “I mean, in terms of beating the buzzer. Been around this game long enough and I knew it was good.”
This time around, Bluiett is chasing however many 3s it will take for that one to be erased from program memory. Heading into the Sweet 16, he’s got eight and is touting a 53.3 tournament 3-point percentage.
Combined, Bluiett’s offensive weapons were good for 18 points per game during the regular season and made him one of the top-100 offensive threats in the country. Decent numbers, but not enough to carry a team. Now, in the tournament, he’s tossed those 18 aside like last season’s Hyperdunks and has gone on to average 25 per game. He dropped 21 on Maryland in the first round and 29 on FSU in the second. Of those 50 total points, 43 have come after halftime.
Safe to say, Bluiett knows not of Stealth Mode.
“This Bluiett kid is off the charts,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said before he found out for himself there are no truer words. The Terps ran into the same matchup problem past teams have and future teams will with Bluiett. He’s taller than most of his opposing counterparts, so he’s confident pulling up all over the court.
If he’s not splashing treys over defenders close enough to know what flavor of Orbit he’s chewing, he’s spinning them off the earth.
Bluiett can also bang down low with the best of them. He was second on the team with 5.8 boards per game during the regular season and has nabbed 10 in the tournament. He has the quickness to beat anyone to the rim and the strength to stay the course on the way there, so stopping him requires a combination of size and speed that, so far, not a single defender has possessed.
No. 2-seeded Arizona will do its worst on Thursday in San Jose, though. Wildcats Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins will likely land the task of Bluiett watch with help from, well, everyone else. Meanwhile, the Musketeers will have to come up with an answer for Lauri Markkanen, the Wildcats’ top scorer in the tournament. But Bluiett’s never met a challenge he can’t shoot over, so expect him and the Musketeers to scrap until the end — and no matter what happens, no one thinks they’re in Stealth Mode anymore.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Xavier won three Big East tournament games; it won two games and lost the third.