ATLANTA – At one point this season, Xavier was 10-9 and faced archrival Cincinnati.
"Do or die," said coach Thad Matta.
Xavier did, outlasting UC 71-69.
At another point this season the Musketeers needed a win just to get into the NCAA tournament. Their opponent was merely top-ranked Saint Joseph's, which happened to be 27-0. Xavier jumped to a 37-point lead and blasted the Hawks by 20.
Since then the Musketeers have won the Atlantic-10 tournament, stormed back on Louisville and manhandled Mississippi State to roar into a Sweet 16 match-up with mighty Texas.
And still people figured Xavier would take one look at all those tall Longhorns and crumble.
Sorry folks. Xavier 79, Texas 71.
The Musketeers, who once looked 40 minutes from the wrong side of the NIT are now 40 minutes from the Final Four. Winners of 16 of its last 17, Xavier isn't just the hottest team in the NCAA tournament, it may be the best.
Don't believe it? You figure that this team has used up their "One Shining Moment?" Be their guest.
"I love being the underdog," shrugged guard Dedrick Finn.
You want an underdog moment? Imagine this. Nine seconds remaining, XU up 74-71, a rebound is up for grabs under the UT basket. The Longhorns, which have a frontline bigger than Texas itself, and absolutely must have this ball, get beat for it by Finn.
Who stands 6 feet 1 inches tall.
But that's Xavier – the improbable, illogical team that was supposed to run out of gas and guts and glory long ago. It's not that Xavier is some weak sister club – not with a backcourt of Romain Sato (24 points) and Lionel Chalmers (14 points, 6 assists) going for it.
But less than two months ago this team was downright average, filled with a bunch of players going in different directions.
Now Xavier just figures out ways to win. Some nights it is by scorching the nets. Some nights, like Friday, it was with defense and rebounding, even if Texas was supposed to be bigger and more physical.
The experience was enough for Longhorns coach Rick Barnes to blow his cool in the final seconds and shout at referee Ted Valentine. Bad idea. Nothing the vain Valentine likes more than TV time, so he promptly gave Barnes a technical and then threw him out of the game.
"It did not need to happen," said Barnes. Valentine declined comment.
Meanwhile the Xavier bench was in a state of pandemonium after advancing further than any team in school history. Who could have predicted that in January?
"Teams take time to mature," said Matta. "And this team obviously took some time."
I guess "obviously" means the 21-point loss to George Washington or that loss to Ball State or those two losses to Duquesne.
Has a team ever lost to Duquesne twice and made the Final Four?
"At 10-9, everyone (was) saying we can't even make the NIT," said Sato.
Who could blame them? But after GW humiliated the Musketeers in late January, Chalmers, the emotional senior, went off in the locker room.
"I said every name in the book," said Chalmers. "Then I said, This is not Xavier tradition. That's not how we do things.'"
At one point of the season Chalmers was as much of an offender as anyone. In the GW game he had one assist. But instead of every other Musketeer pointing a finger back, everyone looked in the mirror. "Guys could have taken it the wrong way but they didn't," said Chalmers.
They lost the next game at Dayton, but they played hard. Then came archrival UC, the neighborhood bully. Xavier didn't blink, pulling out an emotional victory. Nothing has been the same since.
Chalmers has been unbelievable. He now, for the most part, looks pass first, shot second, and is enjoying as good a tournament as any individual player.
Meanwhile Sato is playing like a pro. Freshman Justin Doellman has turned into a major contributor. Guys like Finn and Anthony Myles just seem to keep making big plays.
We're talking about 16-1 since the start of February.
So why would they be worried about Duke? Why would they get scared about playing in the Elite Eight on Sunday? There is nothing Xavier doesn't think is possible at this point. Nothing.
"We didn't come (to Atlanta) to win one game," said Matta.
"We're not done," said Chalmers.
Doubt them at your own risk.
- Lionel Chalmers
- the Musketeers