CINCINNATI >> Xavier’s youthful lineup is growing up in March, just in time to add to the Musketeers’ history of late-season success.
They’ve beaten Ole Miss and Georgia State to reach the Sweet 16 for the fifth time since 2008. Only eight other schools have done it as often, according to STATS.
The sixth-seeded Musketeers have only two seniors on scholarship. Their inexperience showed early in the season, but they’ve played their best in the last few weeks, reaching the Big East conference championship game and comfortably winning both NCAA Tournament games.
Up next is second-seeded Arizona and former Xavier coach Sean Miller in the West Regional.
“You know, what’s really special about our team is that we’ve grown a ton,” senior center Matt Stainbrook said. “We had a learning curve.
“And over the season, we’ve done a good job of learning from our mistakes and getting a lot better. I think it’s great that the Big East has been able to test us with some really tough teams, and I think the fact that we’ve grown as a team together has made us really special at this point.”
They’re in prestigious company.
Since 2008, the list of schools to make the Sweet 16 so often includes Michigan State (7), Louisville (6), and Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Xavier with five appearances, according to STATS.
Ohio sent four teams into the tournament, and they all won their opening games. Ohio State, Cincinnati and Dayton were eliminated over the weekend, weekend, leaving only Xavier to keep playing.
Xavier has reached the Elite Eight twice — in 2004 under Thad Matta and in 2008 in Miller — but never a Final Four.
“When I was choosing schools, one thing that would stick out to me would be how good the basketball program would be,” freshman forward Trevon Bluiett said. “And looking at Xavier, not a lot of people look at them as a team to really go deep in the tournament.
“People don’t really notice that and take notice of that (Sweet 16 appearances). But I do, and I think that’s one of the things that kind of factored into my decision in coming to Xavier.”
With Stainbrook and senior point guard Dee Davis running Xavier’s inside-out offense, the Musketeers have been in control most of the way through their 76-57 win over Ole Miss and their their 75-67 win over Georgia State.
Sophomore forward Jalen Reynolds had a career-high 21 points in the win over Georgia State, and sophomore guard Myles Davis matched his career high with five 3-pointers as the younger players led the way.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but the best part about it is we’re starting to play our best basketball toward the end of the season,” Myles Davis said. “Yeah, we have a chip on our shoulder and we love trying to prove people wrong, and it’s just — it’s great.”
Next up is Arizona, a game that matches two of Xavier’s most successful coaches. Chris Mack was Miller’s top assistant from 2004-09 before moving into the head coaching job.
In Mack’s first season as head coach, the Musketeers barely missed out on another trip to the Elite Eight, losing to Kansas State 101-96 in double overtime at a regional semifinal. It’ll be the first time that Miller and Mack have coached against each other.
“As far as playing Sean, it’s really tough,” Mack said. “I don’t think it’s tough for (the players) because they don’t really know Sean. But Sean gave me a heck of an opportunity to come back to my alma mater. He put a lot of responsibility and trust in me. He ultimately really pushed for me to become the head coach, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
“It’s hard to play against one of your best friends in the business. But it really won’t matter to our guys, nor will it matter to Arizona because they don’t know me from a bucket of paint.”