AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — No Xavier team has won 20 games so quickly or been ranked so high. Yet the No. 5 Musketeers don’t seem all that impressed by the inroads they’ve made in the school’s basketball history.
They’re thinking the same as everyone else: This team has the potential to rank as Xavier’s best when the season’s done.
“We’re looking at the bigger picture, playing for something much bigger,” senior guard Remy Abell said.
Xavier has never reached a Final Four. The Musketeers have come close a couple of times, losing to Duke in a regional final in 2004 and to UCLA in 2008. They’ve reached the Sweet 16 five times in the last eight years, including last season.
With a month to go before tournament time, this Xavier team is ahead of all of those others.
The Musketeers (21-2, 9-2 Big East) opened the season with a school-record 12 straight wins, a streak ended by a 95-64 loss at Villanova on Dec. 31. Freshman point guard Edmond Sumner fell hard to the court in the early minutes of that game and was taken to a hospital in Philadelphia with a concussion.
They became the first team this season to 20 wins last Wednesday with a win over St. John’s. In Monday’s AP poll, they moved back to No. 5 for the second time this season, matching the highest ranking in school history.
They still have a shot at the Big East title — No. 1 Villanova visits the Cintas Center on Feb. 24. Beyond that, they’ve got a chance to get the best NCAA Tournament seed in school history. Xavier was a No. 3 seed in 2003 with David West and again in 2008.
Although the Musketeers won’t say it, their opponents will: These Musketeers have the look of a team that is capable of playing all the way to the end of the tournament.
“They have a hell of a team,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said after Xavier’s 90-82 win on Saturday. “I think they’re a team that can win a national championship. They’ve got great depth of talent, and they can really score and shoot.”
Their depth, balance and defense have gotten such notice.
Three players scored at least 20 in the win over Marquette on Saturday, and that’s not an anomaly. Four players average double figures, led by sophomore Trevon Bluiett at 15.7 points. Two others average nine per game. Bluiett is the only one averaging 30 minutes a game. Six others average between 20 and 29 minutes.
With such depth, coach Chris Mack can substitute freely and keep a fresh set of players on the court, which helps with the defense and their push-the-pace style of offense.
They’ve got the full complement on offense with multiple players who can make 3s, score inside or drive and draw fouls. And if one player has an off-game, there’s somebody else to carry the load. The balance has contributed to some impressive scoring streaks. They’ve run off streaks of 17, 21, 21 and 25 points this season.
Also, Xavier is one of the nation’s best rebounding teams, getting outrebounded only twice all season. The Musketeers also rank among the Big East’s best teams in various defensive categories, too.
“We’re a very good offensive team and we have a lot of confidence in our players, but as long as the defense is working right, everything else will just start to fall into place,” junior guard Myles Davis said.
The offense is back to full strength with Sumner fully recovered from his fall at Villanova. The 6-foot-6 point guard can shoot the 3 and get to the basket quickly, making him one of Xavier’s top threats. He missed three games and wasn’t back in form until the win over Marquette on Saturday, when he had 20 points and five assists in 33 minutes.
“It just took me a while to get back in the groove,” said Sumner, who’s averaging 10.9 points. “I sat out for two weeks. Now I have more confidence in my game.”
There’s no shortage of players eager to take the clutch shots from any spot on the court, which makes them dangerous in close games.
“The word that comes to mind is fearless, and that’s one of our core values,” Mack said. “Whatever venue we step into, whatever the moment is, we want our guys to play without fear.”