Don’t look now, but Xavier basketball is no longer a sleeper. Instead, they are fully recognized as one of the best teams in the country thus far, and their potential is still off the charts. At 12-0 and ranked at #6 in the AP Poll, the Musketeers have won every possible game they could have so far, non-conference play is officially over until March, and aside from the win at Wake Forest, they really haven’t been seriously challenged by anyone.
Since I last wrote about Xavier, they’ve rattled off five more wins, most notably against cross-town rival #22 Cincinnati (which was an absolute unreal experience to see it live with my friend) and the surprisingly-good ACC team Wake Forest. In terms of the first four games (Western Kentucky, Wright State, UC and Auburn), the plot was the same- the X-men dominated the glass, had efficient offensive possessions and absolutely locked down on defense. I’ve already talked about their depth, but they really show it off, especially in the front court. By now, everyone knows about Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, but sophomore Sean O’Mara has also contributed some significant minutes off the bench, especially when those other two guys are in foul trouble. O’Mara is tough down low and has sneaky good polish around the rim. Everyone knows about Reynolds and Trevon Bluiett, but freshman point guard Edmond Sumner has been turning heads with his electrifying dunks and fast-paced play. I’d still really like to see him improve a bit defensively and cut down on his turnovers, but he is a freshman after all. He can’t be perfect, but as long as he keeps doing things like this, I’ll deal with whatever else comes. One thing I really appreciate about Sumner now is that he’s starting to pull down more rebounds. It’s not like they necessarily need him to with the big men they have, but at 6’6”, it’s a major mismatch for other teams to have to account for a point guard as a top rebounder.
When the Muskies went to Salem-Winston or Winston-Salem- wherever the hell Wake Forest is- it was only the second road game of the season (the other being at Michigan, the Advocare Invitational doesn’t count). Games are typically harder away from home, especially when you have the energy and intensity of the Cintas Center on your side. In the first half, Xavier looked downright awful; they were throwing passes away, taking stupid shots, not getting rebounds, and just looked lost defensively. This resulted in the first time the Musketeers trailed at halftime this season, and a deficit that reached 18 points at one point. It looked like the Demon Deacons had them figured out. But the beginning of the second half showed a pure explosion of offense, and Wake Forest had no answer. Sumner had the best stat line, but guys like Remy Abell and Myles Davis toughed out a physical game to make key contributions on both ends of the floor at different points. It’s tough to win every game, especially when you go on the road. Every team, however, needs both a reality check and a character-building win. This was it for Xavier. It showed that they can play in close contests and they overcome a deficit, even if things look bleak.
I’m still trying to contain my excitement. BIG EAST play starts at Villanova, who is still an excellent team in their own right. Butler and Providence join Xavier in the AP top ten. The BIG EAST is good this year, and even though I do believe that Xavier is the most well-rounded team in the conference, that doesn’t mean it’s simply handed to them. Regardless, a deep run in March is officially an expectation for Team 94, and I think they have the talent, experience and depth necessary to make that run. Like I already said, they aren’t a sleeper anymore- they’re a contender. Some people pick them to be in the Final Four.
I can’t wait to get back to campus and back in the Cintas Center, because I expect it to be rocking for every single game from here on out.
Photo courtesy of sportspyder.com