ORLANDO — The low-point of Trevon Bluiett’s season came 15 days ago. The Xavier guard and his teammates began March with an 11-point loss to Marquette at home. It was the sixth consecutive loss for the Musketeers, whose roster had been gutted by suspension and injury for much of the season. Now Bluiett wondered if they would even get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
In the aftermath of that loss, Xavier Coach Chris Mack summoned Bluiett to his office for a talk. It took about 15 minutes. The heart-to-heart was to lay out a plan to save the season, and Bluiett vowed to kick his game up another gear.
“Ever since then, I think our team has looked pretty good,” Bluiett said. The 11th-seeded Musketeers will meet No. 6 seed Maryland in the a West Region first-round game on Thursday afternoon in a matchup between teams that slumped for much of the final six weeks of the regular season.
Xavier has won just four times since Feb. 8 – with three of those wins coming against lowly DePaul – but it also beat Butler in last week’s Big East tournament quarterfinals and then pushed Creighton in a three-point loss in the semifinals. That was enough to ensure a seventh tournament appearance in eight years under Mack, who has taken the Musketeers to three Sweet 16’s over that span.
Bluiett, who finished third in the Big East in scoring (18.1 points per game) and eighth in rebounds (5.8), sounded grateful just to be in the tournament as he got dressed for practice inside Amway Center on Wednesday afternoon. The stoicism of Mack helped pull him and his teammates through a season that began in a difficult fashion, Bluiett said, with guard Myles Davis suspended and eventually leaving the team in January. The backcourt thinned even more with the loss of sophomore guard Edmond Sumner, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a win over St. John’s in late January. Even Bluiett sat out for a stretch in February with an ankle injury, watching as his team began their spiral onto the bubble.
“It’s not necessarily the games, but just being able to practice. We didn’t have 12, 13 scholarship players. Our walk-ons tried their best, but it’s just a different experience in terms of how we usually, normally practice, as you know,” Mack said. “But our teams, like a lot of teams, has come together at the most important time of year.”
Xavier did it behind Bluiett, who has recorded 20 points or more in 16 games this season, but also because it was able to pull solid production out of players like freshman Quentin Goodin, who averaged 9.7 points during the conference tournament, and senior Malcolm Bernard, who has averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds over the past six games. This team also prides itself on crashing the boards, an area that Maryland struggled in for much of the season. Xavier enters the tournament ranked 20th in rebounding margin at plus-6.6 per game.
And then there is Mack, who Bluiett observed as a calming force during the most difficult stretch of the season. That includes during timeouts, where the coach has learned how to command his huddles with short, concise messages after years of studying Arizona’s Sean Miller, former Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly and others. Those are moments that Mack has used to build confidence in his team during their resurrection in March, a month that began with an ominous loss to Marquette.
“He never really worried, whether we lost three games in a row, six games in a row and we were on the bubble,” Bluiett said. “That never changed his mentality, his attitude. He always had the upmost confidence. He still knew, even through all of that, we would still be in the tournament.”