Xavier Is a Legit Final Four Contender, and That Shouldn't Surprise Anyone

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2016

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 20:  Trevon Bluiett #5 of the Xavier Musketeers celebrates a 86-70 win over Michigan at Crisler Arena on November 20, 2015 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Xavier made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 last March on the back of a tall, goofy Uber driver and an unusual defense (the 1-3-1 zone).

Actually, let's try that again...

Xavier did what it usually does last March, getting to the Sweet 16.

The Musketeers have quietly been one of the most consistently successful programs in the last decade in college basketball, so the fact they currently rank No. 7 shouldn't be accompanied by a double take. They've made the Sweet 16 five times in the last eight years—including three appearances under current head coach Chris Mack—and only Michigan State and Louisville have more Sweet 16s during that time period. Xavier is tied with Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin for the second-most.

Yet when the preseason polls came out this year, the Musketeers could only be found in the "others receiving votes" section. 

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 19:  Chris Mack the head coach of the Xavier Musketeers gives instructions to his team against the Georgetown Hoyas at Cintas Center on January 19, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Mack knew the rest of the country could be in for a surprise. 

"I felt like potentially we had as good of a chance to be the best team I've had as a head coach," he told Bleacher Report last week. 

When a coach with three Sweet 16s on his resume says that, the group he has might be something special. 

Mack has proved prophetic through the first couple of months of the season, as Xavier has climbed to as high as fifth in the Associated Press poll and enters Tuesday's game at Providence with a 17-2 record, the third-best start in the history of the program. 

Something wacky is going to take place in the NCAA tournament this year. The consensus is there isn't an elite team in college basketball—only a bunch of really good teams, all of whom have their warts. 

As you start to examine the Musketeers, however, it's hard to find a real flaw. They play great defense—ranking 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com—and can score both inside and out and do so fairly efficiently, ranking 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Every national champion in the last 14 years—as long as Ken Pomeroy's numbers date back to—has finished in the top 25 in efficiency on both ends. Only five teams have the numbers to qualify so far this yearOklahoma, Iowa, Villanova, Miami and Marylandwhile Xavier is a couple of stops away from getting there.

As for the eye test, at least one coach is convinced Xavier has the goods.

"I've been on the staff of teams that have won a national championship. I've been on the staffs of teams that were capable of winning a national championship. Xavier is that level of team," Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski told reporters after his team's loss to Xavier two weeks ago. "... Xavier can win a national championship."

What makes this team built for March is the multiple styles Mack can play or adapt to when needed.

Last season, he added a 1-3-1 zone to his arsenal as a way to combat teams picking on Matt Stainbrook, Xavier's former extremely skilled (but slow-footed) center.

"We were trying to come up with a way to keep our big guys in the lane," Mack said. 

The Musketeers are using the 1-3-1 even more this year, but it's more of a weapon now than a fallback plan.

"It's not a defense you see very much and it's definitely not a defense you see with the personnel that they have," Wojciechowski said. "They're big and they're long, and so that defense has caused a lot of people problems."

The 1-3-1 is even more problematic for opponents in the NCAA tournament, especially on short turnarounds. Mack said it helped Xavier on its run last year.

Xavier is also a better man-to-man team this season because Mack has the size on the perimeter and the quickness inside to guard actions in a variety of ways opponents aren't accustomed to seeing. His big men are quick enough to switch a ball screen in a pinch, and starting point guard Edmond Sumner, at nearly 6'6", can switch onto a bigger player.

Mack has also been able to play some small-ball lineups that move leading scorer Trevon Bluiett, who is 6'6", or 6'8" freshman Kaiser Gates from the wing to power forward.

Xavier speeding up
Adj. tempoNational rank
Source: kenpom.com

That lineup versatility, along with the fact that Xavier's bigs (Jalen Reynolds and James Farr) are mobile, has Mack's team playing faster than it's ever played before (see chart).

"We've always tried to play fast and attack on makes and misses," Mack said. "Matt was more of a lumbering guy. It took him a while to get down the floor, and that's not the case with our bigs this year. They get down the floor really well. I think our wings can get out and run. I think Edmond Sumner is as fast as anybody in college basketball. You know we've always wanted to play in an attacking mode from defense to offense. I just think our personnel makes us go a little bit quicker than we have the last couple years."

Sumner is a one-man fast break, sometimes even after made baskets, and he's also the one reason those on the outside were in the dark about how good this Xavier roster could be.

He is the team's best pro prospect and most difficult player to match up with. The floor general has been consistent for a freshman, scoring in double figures in 12 of his 16 games. (He missed three games after a scary fall at Villanova.)

Sumner played in only six games last season as a true freshman and then took a medical redshirt because of tendinitis in his knees. The reason for the tendinitis was a growth spurt that saw Sumner shoot up from 6'2" when Xavier started recruiting him to roughly 6'6" by the time he got to campus.

"We felt like even at 6'2" he was going to be a terrific college player, and next time we saw him over the course of the year on his official visits and unofficial visits, we kept feeling like he was getting taller each and every time," Mack said. "He's about 6'6" now and that skill set that he had when had when he was 6'2" continued to be there when he was 6'6"."

That skill set includes a feathery jumper that has Sumner shooting 37.2 percent from three, which helps set up his slashing game. As Mack describes it, Sumner has so much wiggle and quickness with the ball in his hands that he's a chore to keep in front of. In addition to pushing the pace, he's helping the Musketeers get to the line more than they ever have under Mack.

Xavier freshman point guard Edmond Sumner is averaging 11.3 points per game after scoring only eight points in six games last season.
Xavier freshman point guard Edmond Sumner is averaging 11.3 points per game after scoring only eight points in six games last season.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If Sumner had played enough minutes, he'd rank near the top of the nation in free-throw rate (free throws attempted per field-goal attempt) and would rank third among major-conference players.

Xavier, as a team, is averaging 26.5 free-throw attempts per game and has made more free throws (374) than its opponents have attempted (351). The Musketeers have pulled this off by creating mismatches all over the floor with their various lineups. 

"Putting Bluiett at the 4 helps that because he's able to really create space on the floor," Mack said. "Their 4 man is away from the basket and not in the lane. It allows us to be able to attack. I think the new rules help as well. We've made a concerted effort to able to get dribble penetration into the paint."

The ability to break defenses down off the dribble has also helped make up for the loss of Stainbrook. Much of Xavier's offense last year went through the big fella because not only could he score, but he was also a terrific passer.

The Musketeers are much less predictable on offense this year, and the focus of the defense from night to night can change depending on the hot hand. Both big men, Reynolds and Farr, can dominate from the blocks and seem to take their turns—they combine to average 20.2 points and 15.6 rebounds per game in 40.0 minutes.

And as expected, Bluiett is leading the Musketeers in scoring (15.4 PPG) and has been much more consistent than he was a year ago.

"Rather than say a certain skill set [has improved], I would tell you that his confidence has grown immensely," Mack said. "He came into college basketball and started off like gangbusters. He was our leading scorer through five or six games a year ago, and people had a tough time defending him and then he kind of hit a rough patch, and I think it really affected his confidence.

"I think he came into the year with a chip on his shoulder wanting to prove that he was more of the beginning of the year player a year ago than he was the end of the year."

As good as Bluiett and the Musketeers have been, they'll have their doubters until they knock off another highly ranked team. They've yet to beat a team currently ranked in the Top 25. They'll get a chance on Tuesday at No. 10 Providence and also will get at least one more shot at Villanova when the Wildcats come to Xavier on Feb. 24.

The first opportunity for a huge win against the Wildcats didn't go as planned. The Musketeers traveled to Villanova on New Year's Eve, but they were blindsided less than three minutes into the game when Sumner got fouled hard and fell to the floor and stayed there motionless.

"There was some tears," Mack said. "You had moms praying behind the bench. It was a scary scene."

Sumner was taken off the floor on a stretcher minutes later, while his teammates returned to action left to worry what could be wrong with their teammate. Villanova went on to win the game by 31 points.

"We were shaken," Mack said. "The immediate response was really, really petrified that something was terribly wrong, and fortunately we got word during the Villanova game that he was responsive, that there was nothing wrong with his spine, and that gave our coaching staff and players a big sense of relief. Him being able to join our team for the flight home and to see him and have him with us made it even a better situation than we had first thought.

"You look back on it now and are really thankful it turned out like it did. I had some awful thoughts going through my mind when I first got down to him right under the basket. Fortunately, everything has worked out and he's passed it and it wasn't worse than it turned out to be."

Everything is back to normal now, Mack said. The fact that Sumner is back and playing great is a remarkable story in itself. He's averaged 12.7 points and 4.3 assists per game since his return. 

One thing has changed, though. Sumner's injury allowed some other players to get minutes, meaning the Musketeers are even deeper now than they were before.

Just another reason why this team is capable of getting to Houston in April. 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.