After losing two of its best players from last year’s Sweet 16 team, Xavier entered the season with relatively low expectations – at least from the outside looking in. Sure, the Musketeers would once again win 20+ games and maybe crack the Top 25, but that was the extent of many people’s expectations.
Well, expectations are suddenly a lot higher. That’s because No. 5 Xavier (24-3, 12-3), which started 12-0 and 16-1, has been one of the best and most balanced teams in the country.
“I was pleasantly surprised (at the beginning of the season),” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “We felt like all along that we had the makings of a really good team, but until you do it on game night – until you do it in front of fans, until you do it consistently – those are certainly just expectations. We had a very, very young team a year ago. We had six freshmen. Not all of them played major minutes, but as you know, they’re a huge part of your practice, having to stop practice, having to slow things down to really explain, whether it’s offensive or defensive concepts – it just takes time with that many new players. There was a little less of that coming into this year, so a little bit quicker learning. I think we have a chemistry about our team. It’s been a fun group to coach.”
Xavier lost Matt Stainbook, who plays professionally in Germany, and Dee Davis, among others, from last year’s team. No matter. The Muskies have six players averaging between 9.5 and 15.3 points, including freshman point guard Edmond Sumner, who is averaging 11.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
“He’s just getting better and better every single game,” Mack said. “Obviously he had the setback at Villanova when he had the concussion, and it took him a couple weeks to sort of get back to his normal self. But coming in, we felt like he was going to have a really good freshman year. We knew he was explosive. His size allows him to do things that Dee Davis, for as good as he was (at 6-feet), just can’t do at 6-6.”
Sumner scored a career-high 22 points in an 88-70 win at Georgetown on Feb. 20. He shot 6-of-9 from the floor and made all nine of his free throws.
“He has a burst about him,” Mack said. “He prides himself on both ends of the floor and is a really humble kid, a really, really quick learner. He played at the same high school as Shane Battier and Chris Webber in Detroit Country Day. He was very well-coached. There aren’t too many things that you have to say to Edmund twice in order for him to get it. Our team has been really helped by his ability to get in the lane and his ability on the defensive end to disrupt with his wing span.”
Sumner suffered a concussion at then-No. 16, now-No. 1 Villanova on New Year’s Eve. He played just two minutes and finished with three points in a 95-64 blowout loss.
“Villanova is the best team in the country,” Mack said. “They’re No. 1 for a reason. A traumatic event happened that day. The fact that Edmund was laying there unresponsive for a minute or two and his teammates saw it certainly took the wind out of our sails and put our minds somewhere else. You can’t have that when you play a team of Villanova’s ilk. Be that as it may, we got beat. Make no excuses. But our ability to rebound from that game and continue to get better and finally get Edmund back has been certainly something that we didn’t expect but something that we had to overcome. We’re better because of it. I think it enhanced our depth the next few games. We’ve been a team that has been a deep team all year long.”
The Muskies, who have since won 12 of 14, can avenge their loss to Villanova (24-3, 13-1) on Wednesday at the Cintas Center at 7 p.m. ET. Nova has won 16 of its last 17 games, with the only loss coming against then-No. 16 Providence in overtime.
Mack, who has led Xavier to three Sweet 16s, knows the Cintas Center will be rocking Wednesday, but win or lose, his No. 1 goal is to take Xavier to the first Final Four in school history.
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” he said. “It’s a very, very hard thing to do is trying to get through the eye of the needle. There are 357 Division I teams trying to get to the tournament, and it’s difficult. But we’re going to keep knocking on that door until the hinges fall off. I think we have a good team, but it would mean a lot. It would mean a lot to our program and it would mean a lot to our fans that, as you said, are as passionate about the sport of college basketball as there is in the country.”