LAS VEGAS (AP) — Xavier came up just short of the Final Four a year ago, losing to eventual finalist Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
The Musketeers could be poised to break through this season.
Following one of the best regular seasons in program history, Xavier earned its first NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeding despite losing in the Big East Tournament semifinals.
The Musketeers (28-5) are No. 1 in the West Region and will face the First Four winner between North Carolina Central and Texas Southern on Thursday in Nashville.
“The tournament is so unique,” coach Chris Mack said Sunday. “We’ve got to play our best if we want to advance and I think we’re right on the verge of that. I think our defense grew up the last three weeks of the season. Experience helps, but being ready to play that night is the most important thing.”
Xavier overcame losing point guard Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL midseason to make an improbable run to the Elite Eight a year ago, knocking off Maryland, Florida State and Arizona before losing to the Zags.
Sumner went on to the NBA and athletic guard Trevon Blueitt considered leaving before deciding to stay in Cincinnati for another season.
Blueitt’s return was a huge boon to the Musketeers. He averaged 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range to become one of the front-runners for national player of the year.
Behind Blueitt, Xavier reached the program’s highest ranking at No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and set a school record for conference victories with 15 on the way to the Big East regular-season title.
The season earned the Musketeers the No. 1 overall seed, but it took them a few seconds to see if they heard right while gathered in an entertainment room in coach Mack’s house.
“I honestly didn’t hear,” Bluiett said. “The volume wasn’t up high enough to hear. J.P. (Macura) leaned back to me and said, ‘Did he say we have a No. 1 seed?’ It was a good feeling to be first in school history to be able to do so.”
CAROLINA CLOSE TO HOME: It’s become an NCAA Tournament tradition: North Carolina opening close to home.
The Tar Heels, the No. 2 seed in the West, will face No. 15 seed Lipscomb in Charlotte on Thursday despite losing 10 games.
North Carolina opened last year’s NCAA Tournament in Greenville, South Carolina, on the way to the national title and played its first two games in Raleigh in 2016. The Tar Heels are 33-1 in NCAA Tournament games in their home state, the only loss coming in 1979.
North Carolina (25-10), No. 12 in the AP Top 25, tied for third during the ACC regular season at 11-7 and won nine of 11 before losing to top-ranked Virginia in Saturday’s ACC title game.
POTENTIAL UPSETS: The West Region has three games that will be popular upset picks.
One comes in Charlotte on Thursday, when No. 10 Providence faces No. 7 Texas A&M. The Friars (23-10) had one of the conference-tournament season’s biggest upsets, taking down Xavier in overtime of the Big East semifinals. The Aggies (20-12) have been inconsistent this season, matching the program’s highest ranking by reaching No. 5 in the AP Top 25 before going 9-9 through the SEC.
No. 5 seed Ohio State could have its hands full with No. 12 South Dakota State in Boise.
Due to the early start of the Big Ten tournament this season, the Buckeyes (24-8) will have a 12-day gap between games before facing the Summit League-champion Jackrabbits. Ohio State also must find a way to stop South Dakota State’s 6-foot-9 forward Mike Daum, the conference player of the year after averaging 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Also keep an eye on No. 6 Houston and No. 11 San Diego State in Wichita, Kansas. The Aztecs had some struggles earlier in the season but will carry a nine-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament after beating New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference Tournament. Houston, No. 21 in the AP Top 25, knocked off Wichita State before losing to Cincinnati by one in the American Athletic Conference title game Sunday.
ZAGS IN BOISE: Gonzaga will have a short trip for its opening game as it tries to get back to the national title game.
The Zags are the No. 4 seed in the West and will open at UNC-Greensboro on Thursday in Boise.
Gonzaga lost key players from last year’s national runner-up team, but won the West Coast Conference regular-season title for the 18th time in 19 seasons and crushed BYU to win its sixth straight conference tournament title.
Expect to see a few Zags fans in Boise.