|Tu Holloway (left), Justin Martin and Xavier don't get much attention, and that suits them. (AP)|
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- You know what Xavier is. Or you think you do, anyway.
You think they're punks. Or lucky. Or maybe even lucky punks.
A couple things factor into this -- an, ahem, incident in December, a late lane violation to seal a victory Friday against Notre Dame, and Xavier needing only to beat 15 seed Lehigh on Sunday.
Don't get sucked into that lazy narrative, though. Especially not after Xavier defeated Lehigh 70-58 to advance to the school's fourth Sweet 16 in five years.
You know who else has been to the Sweet 16 four times in the past five years? Michigan State. North Carolina. Kansas. And that's it.
This Xavier program is legit. And consistently legit. Chris Mack's squad deserves to be mentioned when you start talking about the handful of great, consistent programs around the country. Although Mack, who's an astounding 73-29 (.715 winning percentage) as the Musketeers head coach in three years, and the rest of his kids might just prefer you just kept on ignoring what they've done.
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"People see a 10 seed going to the Sweet 16 and it's like 'Eh,' " star forward Kenny Frease said Sunday. "We were able to beat two really good teams to get here. And I think people are starting to know us now. Obviously the whole nation knew us on December 18. So maybe flying under the radar is where we need to be.
"When we're playing with our backs against the wall, that's when we play our best."
That's precisely where Xavier was on Sunday night. Down 37-33 to Lehigh at halftime, the Musketeers looked like another victim in a potential crazy March Cinderella run. But they stepped up in a big way on offense and defense, limiting the Mountain Hawks to an abysmal 14.7 percent field-goal percentage in the final 20 minutes of the game.
"We wanted to do a better job in transition," Mack said after the game. "I thought they were playing downhill in the first half, our guards weren't getting back. And in the second half, we put them in the half-court a little bit more, which is advantage us. It puts a little bit more pressure on them to score in the half court and execute."
C.J. McCollum, who poured in 30 points against Duke, was inefficient and ineffective on Sunday, scoring only 14 points on 5-of-22 shooting. And the credit for that goes to Xavier star Tu Holloway, who spent 39 minutes hounding McCollum and the Hawks into mistakes and bad shots in what Mack called a "tremendous" effort.
"[McCollum] can absolutely take over games and Tu recognized that and did a great job chasing him," Mack said.
Holloway wasn't nearly as effusive in praising his own effort, saying it "wasn't [his] defense" that stopped McCollum, but instead a team effort and help from guys like Dee Davis and Frease that stopped McCollum in his tracks.
Xavier used a team defensive effort to hound a pro-level scorer. And they battled back from a large deficit -- down 13 with less than three minutes left in the first half -- to win a difficult game on the biggest stage. That is what defines this team.
"Sometimes it's tough to really think about what the outcome could be, but we just stick with it and have faith in Coach that he will put us in the right positions to score," Justin Martin said Sunday. "And we just have faith in our defense, and that's the biggest part of us being the comeback kids that we are, I guess."
Mack quickly quashed that notion -- Xavier doesn't view themselves as "comeback kids." He said Martin made it up on the spot, it's not used in the locker room, and oh-by-the-way please don't make a big deal out of it because people might actually start talking about Xavier. They know about the aforementioned easy narrative, and they know it's what people think of first when they think of Xavier, which only drives them to succeed more.
"I definitely think the incident earlier this [season] has overshadowed what we've accomplished," guard Mark Lyons said. "And also we didn't really play that great coming into the tournament. I feel like now the casual basketball fan knows about us, and with more media attention, they'll realize how good this program has done in the past tournaments."
There's no question that there's an underdog factor in play for Xavier, but maybe there shouldn't be, what with the success this team's had over the past half-decade, quietly maturing into an elite NCAA program. Xavier's a businesslike program with a smart, incredibly astute coach in Mack, a monster like Frease inside and a star like Holloway, who's capable of attacking teams on both ends of the floor.
So there's no reason to get too excited about where they are right now -- they've been here plenty in the past few years. They know there's the potential for much more ahead. And because of the way their team is made up, and the things they've been through, there's good reason to believe Xavier can keep this run going.
But as the locker room door swung shut late Sunday night, it was obvious they're going to enjoy the ride, with one line, shouted to the team as they crowded around and prepped for a trip to Atlanta and a matchup with third-seeded Baylor.
"Do you understand how good this feels right now?"
How could it not? December is miles in Mack's and Xavier's rear-view mirror, and now they can get back to the business of quietly building a dominant program. And if you go ahead and just not bother noticing for a few more weeks, that would be just fine with them, too.