Xavier is no longer a dangerous mid-major basketball program from the Atlantic 10. Instead, it is a national title contender in the Big East.
The No. 5 Musketeers made their case Wednesday to anyone overlooking them across the country with a convincing 90-83 victory over No. 1 Villanova. Thanks to harmless baskets from the Wildcats in the closing minute, the final score was even closer than a game Xavier led, 82-67, with only 2:13 remaining.
Wednesday's clash was the biggest contest of the season in the Big East between two teams that could both find themselves on the No. 1-seed line come Selection Sunday. The 13-2 Wildcats are now only one game ahead of the 13-3 Musketeers in the loss column of the conference standings.
What's more, the two teams split their two regular-season matchups and could be in store for a rubber match in the Big East tournament.
Nicole Auerbach of USA Today reacted to the entertaining contest:
The Big East has not gotten as much love as it's truly deserved this year. But what a terrific game. And two terrific teams.— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) February 25, 2016
Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports believes in Xavier's resume, especially after Wednesday's victory:
Xavier absolutely deserves to be on the No. 1 line. Had it as lowest top seed earlier today. Stating its case. BEast tourney will determine.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) February 25, 2016
Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports noted the Musketeers have not had much success against Villanova since joining the Big East (and losing 95-64 the first time around this season), which likely made Wednesday's win that much sweeter:
Xavier's six losses to Villanova prior to tonight? By an average of 17.2 points.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 25, 2016
Edmond Sumner led the way for Xavier with 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds and consistently created problems for the Wildcats defense thanks to his ability to penetrate the lane and split defenders. ESPN's Dana O'Neil commented on Sumner's night:
Best part of Sumner's game: that smile. So great to see a kid who went thru awful injuries having so much fun— Dana O'Neil (@ESPNDanaOneil) February 25, 2016
Xavier also received 19 points off the bench from J.P. Macura and 16 points and six assists from Myles Davis. Kris Jenkins spearheaded the effort for Villanova with 22 points, but he also fouled out in the second half as the Musketeers were starting to pull away.
Despite the loss, Villanova jumped out to an early lead before Xavier electrified the crowd with a first-half run to take a 28-24 advantage. Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports praised the Musketeers defense during the spurt:
X 28, Nova 24. Xavier has really tightened up the defense after falling behind 19-13. Musketeers attacking basket when opportunity presents.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) February 25, 2016
Shannon Russell of the Cincinnati Enquirer pointed to that defense's ability to contain Ryan Arcidiacono:
I'll tell you what #Xavier has done very well - neutralize Ryan Arcidiacono. Had 27 pts in Game One, scoreless thus far with a TO.— Shannon Russell (@slrussell) February 25, 2016
Xavier also used some offense from Macura on the way to a 40-37 halftime lead. Macura scored 13 points in the opening 20 minutes and drilled two three-pointers, including this one, per FS1:
Matt Norlander of CBS Sports was enthralled by the marksman's first half:
JP Macura out here turning looking like a lottery pick.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 25, 2016
Xavier maintained its lead in the opening minutes of the second half thanks to impressive plays like this from Sumner, via FS1:
Forde commented on the flow of the game at the under-16-minute timeout:
Feels like Xavier has Nova on the ropes, but the margin is three points. Villanova needs Josh Hart to make an appearance. Still 1-7, 3 pts.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) February 25, 2016
Forde foreshadowed a Xavier run, and the Musketeers extended their advantage to 59-50 with 14:30 remaining. By that point, Daniel Ochefu and Jenkins both had four fouls for Villanova. Eisenberg realized it was danger time for the nation's No. 1 team:
Nine-point deficit. Two key starters with four fouls. Deafening environment. Good test of Villanova's fortitude upcoming here.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 25, 2016
Xavier led, 65-55, at the under-12-minute timeout thanks to the bench and its transition play on both ends. Russell put the dominance into statistical perspective:
#Xavier leads Nova 14-2 on fast-break points and has outscored the Wildcats' bench 23-8.— Shannon Russell (@slrussell) February 25, 2016
Things took a dire turn for Villanova when Jenkins fouled out with 22 points. Reid Forgrave of FoxSports.com reacted to the blow to the Wildcats:
Kris Jenkins was having the game of his life. Then he got some dumb fouls. Now he's fouled out. Brutal.— Reid Forgrave (@ReidForgrave) February 25, 2016
Brian Snow of Scout.com called Jenkins' decision-making into question:
That was a great play by J.P. Macura and a really, really, really dumb one by Kris Jenkins to foul out to save 2 points (potentially)— Brian Snow (@BSnowScout) February 25, 2016
Xavier controlled the middle portion of the second half with Jenkins no longer a threat and took a 79-65 lead into the under-four-minute timeout with plays like this, via FS1:
Xavier's offense was doing what few teams had done to Villanova all season, as Adam Amin of ESPN shared:
#Villanova has allowed 75 points in 35 minutes. They’d only allowed 75 three times this year, one of those was to Providence in an OT game.— Adam Amin (@adamamin) February 25, 2016
Villanova couldn't keep up with that overpowering Xavier offense throughout the game. While a three-pointer from Jalen Brunson closed the gap to seven with 36 seconds remaining, the Wildcats never truly threatened in the final minutes.
The Musketeers iced the 90-83 victory at the free-throw line and picked up one of the most important wins of the entire college basketball season.
Xavier still needs Villanova to lose one more time if it hopes to clinch at least a share of the regular-season Big East crown, but it can secure a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament if it parlays the momentum from Wednesday into a strong finish.
The Musketeers close with games at Seton Hall and against Creighton. While neither opponent is ranked, Xavier can ill afford to overlook either of them because the Pirates hung tough in the Cintas Center and lost by eight on Jan. 23, and the Bluejays actually beat Xavier on Feb. 9.
As for Villanova, it still controls its own destiny for the top seed in the Big East tournament, which would likely be enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance even with Wednesday's loss. It has three games remaining against Marquette, DePaul and Georgetown.
The Wildcats already beat all three opponents once this season, and only the Hoyas came within single digits. However, that five-point win was at Georgetown on Jan. 16, and Villanova gets its old Big East nemesis at home to end the season.
Three straight wins to close the campaign would go a long way toward erasing Wednesday's loss in the eyes of the selection committee.
Jeremy Rauch of Fox 19 in Cincinnati shared footage of the celebration after the win:
Xavier coach Chris Mack addressed why the fans didn’t storm the floor, per Forgrave: “Chris Mack says if XU was 14-14, fans might have stormed court. ‘My two daughters did, so maybe they’re out of line. I should ground them.’”
Mack commented on Macura’s performance and said, per Rick Broering of Scout.com, “He played fearless. He played absolutely fearless. He's never afraid of the big moment.”
Davis said, per Broering, “We know we're capable of competing with anyone in the country.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright wasn’t surprised by Xavier’s performance at home, per Elise Jesse of WLWT in Cincinnati: “That's what we expect from Xavier.”
Wright at least found a silver lining, per Jeff Wallner of the Sports Xchange/Reuters: “I never want to lose. But I'd rather lose to a good Big East team. I'm glad No. 1 and No. 5 was two Big East teams.”
If Villanova and Xavier continue to play like they have all season during the stretch run, the entire country better get used to two Big East teams residing in the Top Five.