Once again, Xavier finds itself in Sweet 16

Derek Samson

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Let's play a game of which of these things is not like the other.

North Carolina. Michigan State. Kansas. Xavier.

Now, how many chose Xavier? Everyone? Sounds about right.

Here's the thing: Those are the only programs in the nation to reach the Sweet 16 four times in the past five seasons (no one has done it all five). Yet Xavier never really is mentioned as one of the nation's elite or even as a member of the second tier, depending on how deep that second tier goes for most people.

The 10th-seeded Musketeers returned to the Sweet 16 this season by beating 15th-seeded Lehigh 70-58 at Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday night in a South Region game, and this one might be the biggest statement that the Musketeers – as a program – have made. If ever a program looked ready to crumble, it was Xavier's 2011-12 squad.

This team shouldn't be in the Sweet 16. Not after this wacky, rocky season that to this point is remembered more for brawlin' than ballin'.

"We just persevered," said Andre Walker, a senior forward who spent his first three seasons at Vanderbilt. "We went through more adversity than in all four years of college, all rolled into a few months. I'm not sure any team went through as much as we did, with so many ups and downs. We just persevered and grew closer as a team. We didn't let anything outside of our locker room influence us.

"This is the reason I came here. They always make big runs in the tourney."

[Pat Forde: Kentucky still going strong on run for title]

The infamous brawl at the end of Xavier's victory over crosstown rival Cincinnati on Dec. 10 appeared to destroy this season. The Musketeers were undefeated and ranked No. 8 at the time, but quickly deflated. Xavier suspended freshman Dez Wells and sophomore Landen Amos for four games, junior guard Mark Lyons for two and senior guard Tu Holloway for one game.

The team began to unravel, losing five times in the next six games following the suspensions. Holloway remembers coach Chris Mack explaining to the players that everyone in the country was taking shots at them.

An up-and-down Atlantic 10 season had the Musketeers sitting at 18-11 heading into March. Walker recalls talking with Holloway about the inexplicable thought of missing the tournament.

Imagine that – from top 10 in December to NIT in March.

But fortunately for Xavier, it owns March.

A run to the A-10 tournament final helped seal the spot in the NCAA field. One weekend later, its back in the Sweet 16.

"We always knew we had the talent in the locker room, and for whatever reason things weren't clicking for us," said senior center Kenny Frease, who had a career-high 25 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Lehigh. "We're coming together at the right time. We had a really good weekend in Atlantic City [A-10 tourney] and came here with that momentum."

Mack, though, said this can't be the final step. And that is part of the reason Xavier never gets mentioned in the current top tiers of college basketball programs. While the Musketeers went to the Elite Eight in 2008, they've never reached the Final Four.

[Also: Indiana eager for big rematch with Kentucky]

That's not likely to change this season. Xavier faces third-seeded Baylor on Friday in Atlanta, and even if they upset the Bears, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, Kentucky, likely awaits in the Elite Eight.

This season, though, reaching the Sweet 16 should be enough to prove this program's mettle. That this Xavier team – 23-12 and less talented than previous seasons – went through so much, barely made the NCAA tournament and now sits in the Sweet 16 again is remarkable.

"After going through so much, we're still standing today in the last 16 teams," Holloway said. "It shows the character."

More than anything, it shows the Xavier program deserves more recognition.

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