Over the past two decades these schools have become tourney mainstays. Now, both are in their third Elite Eight. Neither has made a Final Four. Both have charmed and endeared over the years with upset wins and deep runs and heartbreaking losses. Gonzaga. Xavier. Basketball schools. Even the names are unusual, memorable -- and fun to say.
“Gonzaga vs. Xavier.” How very NCAA Tournament that sounds.
And on Saturday, one of them is going to make history. In the process, either Mark Few or Chris Mack will become a Final Four coach. That’s terrific.
Xavier, an 11-seed with the mean streak of a 1, pulled off a 73-71 comeback win over No. 2 Arizona on Thursday night. The outcome offered up the tournament its biggest upset by seed differential. Now Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed, the highest-rated team and most likely champion, per computer models, is going up against the new darling of this tournament. That’s a cute plot twist. Far removed from being a mid-major (just like Gonzaga), the Musketeers have fared well since moving to the Big East in 2013, making the tournament every year and improving their standing in the sport’s landscape. A year after falling out of the second round as a 2 seed thanks to a buzzer-beating loss at the hands of Wisconsin, Xavier is aiming to become the fourth 11 seed in history to make the Final Four.
LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011 are the others. You can say seeds don’t matter, but they kind of do. Part of why this Xavier run is particularly endearing is because there is an “11” next to its name, not a “3.”
It’s amazing we’ve even hit this point with this team. First, the micro: Xavier was down eight with 3:50 to go, Mack coaching against his old boss, Sean Miller. Two years ago, in this very round of the tournament, Miller got out with an eight-point margin against his former school. On Thursday, Xavier found its revenge by closing the game on a 9-0 run.
In the macro: Xavier’s dip into the West Regional final is the latest reminder that March can be a cure-all. This team was floundering in February. It went through a 10-game stretch wherein it lost to every team it played except DePaul. There was a legitimate argument to be made that Xavier needed to beat DePaul and Butler in the Big East tournament to secure its standing in the field. It did just that, then was knocked out by Creighton.
Even bigger picture: Mack has pulled off the best coaching job of his career. Xavier has dealt with the departure of starting lead guard Myles Davis, who barely played this season, and the loss of point guard Edmond Sumner, who could be an NBA pick eventually. You don’t lose two starters and reach the Elite Eight. That’s not how this works. Yet here is Xavier, showing us it can. Here are the Muskies knocking on the door of program history and rewriting the rules. Mack and his staff and those players have done beyond the unexpected. With an 11 next to its name, Xavier has entered each tournament game as an underdog and emerged the victor.
A program filled with March memories is making its most memorable streak now. There is plenty of reason to root for X, including Trevon Bluiett -- the MVP of this tournament so far, averaging 25 points per game. He’s on the precipice of an all-time tournament run. One more huge outcome, with a win vs. Gonzaga, and Bluiett will be remembered in Cincinnati forever. It’s not all Bluiett, but he’s the catalyst. J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara, Quentin Goodin and Malcolm Bernard all made pivotal plays to pull off the Arizona upset.
As for the game, another ending in this tournament was soured in the last few seconds thanks to a terrible 3-point attempt, this time from Allonzo Trier. We can’t catch a buzzer-beater in this bracket because there are too many bad, long-distance shots getting hoisted up like bad habits.
For Sean Miller, it’s another promising tournament layout that won’t end with a Final Four trip. He’s had a 4 seed or better five times in his career and is yet to make it to college basketball’s ultimate weekend. Not only that, but Miller’s tournament exits have come by an average of 4.2 points while at Arizona. Arizona failed to score in the final 2:50. Lauri Markkanen, the Finnish freshman whiz, didn’t take a shot in the final 11 minutes of the game.
There is extra sting for Arizona that it had a solid chance at getting Miller to his first Final Four, and this year it’s in Phoenix. That would have been a cool sight.
But it will be Gonzaga or Xavier coming out of the West. Either would be a fun story for college basketball. Right now, let’s just hope both play to their names and give us a terrific regional final. One program is two days away from being changed forever. The bracket has unfolded to give us two former lovable small-time programs that have built themselves into bastions of big-time basketball. The appeal is still there, but the reality is both these schools are overdue for their moment on the big stage.