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Xavier basketball is no longer an underdog

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Xavier has had so much NCAA Tournament success without ever making the Final Four. Could this be the year?

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier basketball has spent the better part of the last two decades becoming synonymous with busting your bracket. From Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, the Musketeers have displayed a remarkable consistency at pulling upsets in March. Through it all, even their best teams have always had the veneer of an underdog.

Maybe you remember Jordan Crawford pulling up from Steph range in the Sweet 16 to break Gus Johnson's brain. Maybe you recall Matt Stainbrook becoming something just short of a national phenomenon last season as a chubby-yet-graceful interior force. You definitely remember The Brawl, the overblown reaction to Tu Holloway's "we've got a whole bunch of gangsters" comment and the ensuing fallout.

But have you ever previously considered that Xavier is actually, like, good? If not, this is the year. In a college basketball season that has become every bit as wide open as anticipated, Xavier enters the NCAA Tournament braced for its golden opportunity.

There's no gimmick with this year's Musketeers, no hefty Uber driver slowing down the offense, no dependence on a glorified chucker to carry the scoring burden. Instead, Xavier looks the part of a real contender: deep, balanced, experienced and stocked with a variety of weapons that gives Mack ample lineup flexibility. If there was ever a year for Xavier, this could be it.

Would you believe only Louisville and Michigan State have been to the Sweet 16 more often than Xavier in the last eight years? The Musketeers' five trips to the second weekend ties them with Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin over that time frame.

Now, a program that's never been to the Final Four looks to take the next step.

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Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

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Every national champion of the last 14 years has placed in the top 25 of both KenPom's offensive and defensive efficiency rankings. Xavier is there right now as the No. 20 offense and No. 25 defense. It's the byproduct of a roster that has just about everything you're looking for.

It starts with Trevon Bluiett, the type of do-it-all, two-way wing every team would love to have. Bluiett was one of the biggest recruits in recent Xavier history, reneging on his verbal commitment to UCLA to join the Musketeers as the No. 46 prospect in the class of 2014, per ESPN. He's lived up to the hype.

Bluiett has seen his scoring jump to 15.1 points per game as a sophomore, and improved his three-point percentage from 32.6 last year to 38.3 (on nearly six attempts per game) now. He's also the key to Xavier's versatility: while he's a natural small forward, he can also slide to the four in a pinch to give Xavier a more athletic, perimeter-oriented attack.

Xavier can get away with four-out basketball because they have two grown men inside: James Farr and Jalen Reynolds, both 23 years old. Both are 6'10 and about 240 pounds, which means they aren't getting bullied inside by anyone. They hold the defense together, whether it's a 1-3-1 zone or man-to-man, and they are the reason Xavier is terrific on the glass (No. 28 in offensive rebound percentage, No. 44 in defensive). Farr and Reynolds also combine to give Mack nearly 20 points per game on offense.

Mack has a wealth of options on the perimeter. Remy Abell -- one of two seniors here, along with Farr -- is the best defender of the bunch. Myles Davis is the de facto point guard, a solid playmaker and an efficient (38 percent) volume three-point shooter. Sophomore J.P. Macura can knock down an outside shot, too, though Xavier would appreciate if he's better in the tournament than the 33.7 percent three-point shooter he's been over his career.

Then there's Edmond Sumner, redshirt freshman who qualifies as Xavier's breakout player. Sumner missed all of last season with a scary knee injury that required the Kobe-in-Germany treatment, but he's bounced back this year in a big way. He's a smooth 6'5 guard with the handle and playmaking ability to run point and the size to defend multiple positions. Mack called him "as fast as anybody in college basketball" and doesn't seem totally out of the question.

This team has already done things Xavier basketball has never seen before. They secured the program's first top-five ranking, set a school record with 12 straight wins to open the year and were faster to 20 victories than anyone in the country. They also believe they're good.

"If we were 14-14, we'd probably storm the court," Mack said after Xavier knocked off No. 1 Villanova last week. "I think it'd be a little bit odd for the No. 5 team in the country to storm the court."

There are some concerns. Our excellent Xavier community, Banners on the Parkway, has openly wondered if this team has the athletes on the perimeter to play man-to-man defense. That seems damning. The 1-3-1 has its holes -- like a propensity to yield corner threes -- and after watching how Isaiah Whitehead treated them on Saturday, the Musketeers have to worried if they draw an opponent with a superstar guard.

But on the whole, there's a lot to like here. This program been on the brink before, and there's reason to believe this is the best team Xavier has ever had. Everyone but Abell and Farr come back next year too, so the Musketeers aren't going anywhere. Still, given the landscape of the season and the talent on this roster, this feels like the shot Xavier has been waiting for. Only now, they aren't an underdog anymore.