Xavier seems to simultaneously be the luckiest and most clutch team going in college hoops right now.
The fifth-ranked Musketeers won yet another close game Saturday, this one a 72-71 escape job in Omaha, Nebraska over a solid Creighton club. The game turned on a foul call against Creighton (18-7, 8-5 Big East) with 0.3 seconds remaining. It happened in part because Xavier coach Chris Mack tasked speedster sophomore Quentin Goodin with going to length of the floor in 4.6 seconds. Mack’s hunch was that his team’s best chance at winning was to let Goodin zip.
Goodin induced a foul call Creighton’s Ronnie Harrell Jr. Here’s the play that has Bluejay fans chirping.
It’s fair to say there was questionable contact there, but it’s contact nonetheless. What’s more, Creighton benefited the possession prior, when it took the lead after a foul was called on Trevon Bluiett with 4.6 seconds remaining. Harrell, coincidentally, was the one who was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer. He got the call because Bluiett tapped his non-shooting elbow.
Two iffy whistles, five made foul shots with less than five seconds remaining, and Xavier (23-3, 11-2) gets a season sweep of the Jays.
Controversy aside, here’s the big picture on Xavier: It should be a No. 1 seed on Sunday, when the NCAA Tournament selection committee makes its one-time-only in-season reveal of the top 16 teams in the sport. (The unveiling will happen at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS.) Our Jerry Palm put the Musketeers on the No. 1 line earlier in the week. With a road win against a Creighton team that already owns four victories over Quadrant 1 teams, Xavier’s top-line case is even stronger, controversial call be damned.
How have the X-men been able to pull this off? Go back to what I mentioned at the top of this story. They win close games. In fact, they always win games when they’re close — at least so far. Xavier’s 9-0 in two-possession games this season and the Musketeers are undefeated when an outcome is decided by six points or fewer. As you might suspect, that success rate has Xavier rated No. 6 in luck at KenPom.com.
Mack and his assistants would tell you it’s more than luck. Clutch play, veteran dependability and bad breaks from a year ago have built this team into finding wins so often now. Xavier had a bumpy 2016-17 campaign before making an Elite Eight run. Bluiett, Goodin, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kaiser Gates are all back from that team. There is a fascinating, dramatic element to the Musketeers that has turned them into must-see television. Bluiett’s on the very short list of best players in program history. He could be a First Team All-American selection, and his late-game mentality and shooting ability ensures that Xavier will always have a chance against any opponent if a basket is needed with less than a minute remaining.
As for the close calls, here’s the rundown of Xavier’s success. Things started innocently enough through the first 10 games, but then a home tilt and double-digit second half deficit against East Tennessee State started the pattern.
- Dec. 16: beat ETSU 68-66
- Dec. 19: beat Marshall 81-77
- Dec. 27: beat Marquette 91-87
- Dec. 30: beat DePaul 77-72
- Jan. 17: beat St. John’s 88-82
- Jan. 30: beat St. John’s 73-68
- Feb. 3: beat Georgetown 96-91 in OT
- Feb. 6: beat Butler 98-93 in OT
- Feb. 10: beat Creighton 72-71
You’ll notice that this flare for the dramatic has become an every-game occurrence since February arrived. Next up won’t be easy on the heart: Seton Hall on Valentine’s Day. What’s even better: check those scores again. Xavier’s putting up buckets on the way to winning; it’s averaging 83 points in its closest victories. No team has made basketball more fun in the final minutes this season than the Muskies.
The Musketeers lose emphatically, by the way: 102-86 to Arizona State, 81-72 to Providence, and 89-65 to Villanova. Those are their only losses. If you’re going to beat Xavier, you’ll know it’s coming with about five minutes to go.
Anything short of that, recent history suggests fortune won’t be on your side (lest a regression to the mean rears its inevitable head). The Big East has two teams with No. 1 seed resumes. Villanova gets more widespread pub, but now’s the time to acknowledge Xavier as it chases the first No. 1 seed in school history. Whether or not that actually happens might not be what decides this team making it to San Antonio.
To win deep in March, then into April, every coach will tell you need to be very good and a little bit lucky. Xavier has plenty of both to go around.