Once again, head coach Sean Miller has proved capable of lifting Xavier to unthinkable heights. He took the program to its second Elite Eight berth in 2008, and nine years later, thanks in part to his influence, the Musketeers are back on that stage. Unfortunately for Miller, he hasn’t coached at Xavier since 2009.
Miller’s second-seeded Arizona Wildcats held an eight-point lead over the 11th-seeded Musketeers with 3:45 remaining in their Sweet 16 matchup on Thursday night. Arizona features a pair of projected first-round draft picks, went 30–4 in the regular season, and won the Pac-12 tournament; Xavier has one fringe NBA prospect and dropped seven of its final 10 pre-NCAA tournament games. When the Wildcats went ahead 69–61, it should not have been hard for them to hold on.
But they Bluiett. The Musketeers gunned down the stretch, finishing on a 9–0 run while Arizona missed its last five shots. Xavier won 73–71 to move to the Elite Eight, led by 25 points from junior guard Trevon Bluiett.
The biggest play of the contest was made by Sean O’Mara, a bulky 6-foot-10 junior forward who was barely part of the Xavier rotation for the majority of the season but who’s recently emerged as one of the team’s most critical cogs. With 50 seconds left and the score tied at 71, the team ran a beautiful play to get O’Mara the ball in the post:
This was perhaps the best moment of a tournament that’s been starved for them: a double-digit seed roaring back to topple a real title contender; a little-used reserve bullying for buckets and boards while his counterpart, future lottery pick Lauri Markkanen, short-armed rebounds and didn’t even attempt a field goal in the game’s final 11 minutes. Bill Murray, whose son is an assistant coach at Xavier, was there to celebrate, as seems to happen at pivotal sports moments these days. From the Wildcats’ perspective, it was a baffling shutdown of both execution and strategy, and a stretch that will likely haunt Miller, whose career continues to be defined by his failure to get his extremely talented teams — 30 or more wins in three of the past four seasons — to the Final Four.
Xavier is a strange Cinderella. Last year it was a no. 2 seed. This season’s team returned three starters and the two leading scorers from that roster, and was projected to be a no. 6 seed in the tourney in early February. Then it lost six straight, a stretch that could’ve been longer if it weren’t bookended by three games against DePaul. (Thank goodness for DePaul.) The Muskies almost catapulted out of the tournament altogether: When I saw them beat Butler in the Big East tournament, head coach Chris Mack opened his postgame press conference by mentioning a tweet from Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel about how the win likely secured their place in the field. They ended up being the last team whose name was announced on Selection Sunday. Mack had his players symbolically burn a February calendar and place the month’s ashes in an urn.
All of that put the Musketeers in a familiar spot: a team that might seem like an underdog even if it shouldn’t. It’s been a relatively consistent force, having missed the NCAA tournament only twice this millennium. And yet it doesn’t come to mind when we think of college basketball powerhouses. It’s been part of a power conference only since joining the Big East in 2013, and there are people who’ll tell you that the Big East isn’t even a power league. (They’re wrong, but they exist.) It’s served as a step on the coaching ladder for guys like Miller and Thad Matta, but it hasn’t had a capital-M Moment like many of its more-than-mid-major peers, including Butler and Wichita State. And when the Musketeers have had chances, they have often lost in heartbreaking fashion — last year’s loss on a buzzer-beater to Wisconsin, a 2010 double-overtime loss in the Sweet 16, and a huge blown lead against Matta’s Ohio State squad in the 2007 tournament.
Now is the time for Xavier. One win, and it’ll be in the Final Four. So maybe it’s only fitting: To get there, it’ll have to defeat Gonzaga, a program that’s arguably even more desperate for its Moment.