CINCINNATI — Xavier didn’t look like an Elite Eight team in early March, coming off six straight defeats that led coaches to try to burn the month of February from the players’ memories, literally.
Ranked No. 7 in the preseason, the Musketeers had dropped out of the poll and were a bubble team after losing senior guard Myles Davis, point guard Edmond Sumner and top scorer Trevon Bluiett at midseason. Coach Chris Mack had the staff print copies of their February schedule with all its losses, and the players burned them. They’ve carried the ashes with them to practices and games as a reminder at what they have overcome.
The losses weren’t even close during the slump, as Xavier lost each game by at least eight points. A closer look at the streak:
FEB: 11: 73-57 home loss to Villanova
Davis — a senior leader — was suspended for the first half of the season while misdemeanor charges against him were resolved. He returned, played in three games in January, and left the team. Sumner, the Musketeers’ second-leading scorer and quickest defender, tore an ACL on Jan. 31. Bluiett had been playing with a sprained right ankle, which he severely aggravated midway through the first half against Big East leader Villanova and couldn’t move.
Quote: “This league is becoming a war of attrition, man. Everybody’s losing players. I feel bad for Chris with Sumner out and now Trevon getting hurt in the first half. That had a big impact on the game.” — Villanova coach Jay Wright.
FEB. 15: 75-63 loss at Providence
Bluiett sits out for the first time in his Xavier career. The Musketeers’ depleted lineup turns the ball over 17 times. Providence scores 46 points in the second half while the Musketeers fade.
Quote: “We have to grow up. I feel like I’m doing a lousy job as a head coach influencing our team to play through adversity.” — Mack.
FEB. 18: 83-61 loss at Marquette
Bluiett sits again. The Musketeers turn the ball over six times and miss seven of their first eight shots in the opening minutes, helping Marquette put out to a 21-2 lead that essentially decides the game. They really miss Sumner and Bluiett.
Quote: “Our guards were irrelevant tonight, they just were.” — Mack.
FEB. 22: 72-64 loss at Seton Hall
Bluiett returns but is still clearly affected by the sore ankle. He goes only 5 of 12 for 14 points. The Musketeers wear down in the second half again, getting outscored 39-26 down the stretch.
Quote: “We could pinpoint why. I’m more worried about what we need to do to get better. It seems like it’s been a long time since we’ve won a game.” — Mack.
FEB. 26: 88-79 home loss to Butler
Bluiett is better, going 7 of 16 for 21 points, but the injury to Sumner and the lack of depth at guard show up again. Xavier turns the ball over four times during Butler’s closing 19-8 run. The Musketeers’ body language shows a lack of confidence in the closing minutes, a rare sight at the Cintas Center.
Quote: “No one wants to lose how we’re losing. I would say it concerns me. You don’t want to get in that habit where you’re OK with losing.” — senior guard Malcolm Bernard.
MARCH 1: 95-84 home loss to Marquette
The Musketeers lose at home on senior night, a real low point. Bluiett is 4 of 9 for 15 points, but the Musketeers’ handling hurts again. Their 14 turnovers set up 25 points. The defense falls apart, too, allowing Marquette to shoot 70 percent in the second half. Suddenly, Xavier is a bubble team.
Quote: “Our defense was terrible. We should’ve won this game. We should have been more fired up. It’s senior night, for (goodness) sake.” — Bernard.
THE TURNAROUND: Xavier wins at DePaul to end its longest losing streak in 35 years, and then beats the Blue Demons again to open the Big East Tournament. A win over Butler in the next round, followed by a 75-72 loss to Creighton in the semifinals, helps the Musketeers get back their confidence.
A team that had weathered one of the toughest stretches of any team in the NCAA Tournament was looking formidable again.
“To be able to beat Butler kind of sparked us, gave us a little bit of energy, a little bit of hope,” Bluiett said. “We knew when we got them that we were starting to get our mojo back, everything was starting to come back.”