CINCINNATI — Xavier reached a new height when it moved up to No. 3 in the latest Associated Press poll, and that was just the start of one of the biggest weeks in the school’s basketball history.
The Musketeers (25-4, 13-3) would clinch a share of their first Big East title by beating Providence at the Cintas Center on Wednesday night, the final home game for Trevon Bluiett and three other senior regulars. They also would get even for one of their few losses.
That’s a lot wrapped into one game.
“That’s why we can’t let senior night get to our heads,” said Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer at 19.2 points per game. “We’ve still got a lot of basketball to play, a lot more moments to cherish.”
There’s more. Xavier would win the title outright by beating the Friars (18-11, 9-7) and then knocking off DePaul on Saturday, finishing ahead of four-time champion Villanova.
Winning a Big East title was one of Xavier’s top goals when it moved into the reconfigured conference, which ranks second in the RPI behind the Big 12. The closest they’ve come is second, while Villanova has won it each of the first four seasons.
Xavier had a chance to take control when it hosted Villanova on Feb. 17. The Wildcats won 95-79, keeping the two schools tied in the loss column and sending the race to the final weeks. The Wildcats’ 89-83 overtime loss at Creighton on Saturday gave Xavier a one-game lead again.
“Ultimately we want to accomplish something we have yet to do,” senior Sean O’Mara said. “It just happens to be on our senior night. Now that we have an opportunity to really claim one, it’s that much more important for us.”
The Musketeers lost at Providence 81-72 on Jan. 6 in one of their sloppiest games of the season. Bluiett and senior guard J.P. Macura were a combined 8 of 24 from the field for 21 points. The Musketeers had 15 turnovers and trailed for most of the game, unable to catch up because of their erratic play.
Forward Kerem Kanter had 24 points and 12 rebounds, keeping Xavier in it. The guards know they have to do a much better job in the rematch.
“We didn’t forget about that loss we took at Providence,” Bluiett said. “We felt that was one of the worst games we’ve played all year. We didn’t live up to the way we’ve been playing. On Wednesday, there will be a lot of energy just because we have something to prove.”
Xavier has lost to only three teams all season: Arizona State, Providence and Villanova twice.
“Overall we’ve just got to be better than we were the first time around,” coach Chris Mack said.
Bluiett will leave as Xavier’s second all-time scorer. The senior class will play its final game on a floor where it’s lost only one game this season, the one against Villanova.
“Senior night can’t be the big spot of our night,” Bluiett said. “We’ve got to finish what we’ve planned to do, which is win a Big East championship. It’ll be a bittersweet moment because you know it’ll be the last moment stepping on that floor, playing in front of those fans.”
Xavier had never been ranked higher than No. 5 in the AP poll until this season and has never won a Big East title. The Musketeers are in line for their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a strong finish, a year after they reached the Elite Eight. The school record of 30 wins in a season also is within grasp.
Asked if the team has spent any time putting its season in perspective, Mack had an immediate answer.
“Nope,” he said. “Not yet.”