(Photo: Getty Images)
College basketball coaches sometimes get more credit than they deserve. At least, that's what college basketball coaches will tell you. Players win games, and late last night in San Jose, Xavier's players beat Arizona's players, staging a furious comeback in the final minutes to move within a game of the program's first Final Four.
The XU roster, as short on names as it is, was abundant in its heroes against the Wildcats. Trevon Bluiett, arguably the best player in this year's NCAA Tournament so far, was again fantastic. By halftime, he had 18 points after making his first seven shots, and even as his scoring slowed in the second half, he made a game - and season - saving bucket, canning a three with just under three and a half minutes to go to pull the Musketeers off the mat and cut Arizona's lead to five. A minute and a half later, he'd drain the game-tying free throws.
Malcom Bernard was huge as well. A postseason of sudden Muskie star turns saw Bernard get his turn last night. His 15 points marked his highest total as a Musketeer, and included a huge three during the game-ending comeback as two critical free throws after a crucial offensive rebound. His glass work, on a night when Xavier was out-sized and often out-manned underneath, included six boards, the final of which came on Arizona's final miss.
JP Macura played a fine, complete floor game that included a two-hand dunk that made Chris Webber nearly wet himself on the TBS broadcast. Sean O'Mara gave the Musketeers critical contributions off the bench. The team as a whole had answers for anything and anything the Wildcats threw at them.
But this win belonged to Chris Mack.
Simply put, the Xavier head coach ran circles around his former boss, tactically and otherwise. The Xavier offense - which often looked stagnant and disjointed during the Big East's dog days - operated with fluidity and precision. Its defense mucked up an Arizona offense that's usually potent, often multi-dimensional, and broke it down to the point that down the stretch, it became a one-man attack.
His masterfully used his bench, getting key breaks for Bluiett and Macura while the team stayed afloat. He managed his timeouts far more effectively than Sean Miller, who had to stand helplessly, unable to stop the clock, and watch as his team's last gasp possession fell apart in front of him. And the final minute was a virtuoso, with Xavier forcing an ugly Dusan Ristic shot that would've given Arizona the lead, the going two-for-one, and scoring quickly on an O'Mara bucket after a stop to put the Wildcats on their heels.
More than anything though, there's the way Mack's team handled itself as Arizona looked to closeout the game. Down eight, and needing a possession to stay in the game, the Musketeers never panicked. Instead, Quentin Goodin smoothly collapsed Arizona's defense on back-to-back possessions, each of which resulted in open threes canned by Bluiett and Bernard, respectively.
In the final moments, the Musketeers came together while the Wildcats fell apart. Mack's team remained composed. Miller's team came unglued. The former understudy is 40 minutes from Phoenix.
The game could be called a microcosm of Xavier's last few weeks. I look at it as indicative of the work done by a coach of a team that, even during their late-season losing streak, never seemed to collapse under the weight of potentially missing the tournament, that never seemed to be playing under much pressure in what felt like do-or-die games in the Big East Tournament, and that in the NCAA Tournament, has played as well as anyone ever could've imagined in games that at one point, few imagined they'd even be in.
Last night, Chris Mack's team looked unfazed against a supposedly superior Arizona team. It shined during the game's most pressure-packed moments. And now, the Xavier Musketeers are one win away from going somewhere that, at a few different points, no one could've imagined they'd go.
That's obviously a huge credit to Xavier's players. It's also directly reflective of the quality of Xavier's coach.