CINCINNATI (AP) — When Xavier went to Michigan for its third game of the season and won by 16 points, the Musketeers started thinking this season could be extraordinary. Nothing since has changed their minds.
A 90-83 win over No. 1 Villanova on Wednesday night put fifth-ranked Xavier in position for one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Musketeers (25-3, 13-3 Big East) are a half-game behind the Wildcats (24-4, 13-2) for the league’s regular-season title.
And they’ve got the look of a team that could play deep into March.
“I think we have bigger fish to fry,” coach Chris Mack said.
The win over Villanova was a breakthrough for the Musketeers, who had been 0-6 against the Wildcats in their three seasons together in the Big East. When they left the Atlantic 10 for the reconfigured league, the Musketeers set out to become one of its top teams.
A convincing win at home — Xavier led by 15 points late in the game — suggested they’ve finally pulled even.
“They’re as good as it gets in college basketball and it was going to take a monumental effort from our team for 40 minutes, and that’s what we gave,” Mack said. “I’m really proud of our team.
“Everybody reminds you that you’ve never beaten Villanova since you’ve been in this league, the average margin of victory was yadda, yadda, yadda, and they were able to shrug that stuff off and compete against what has been the top team in our league for the last couple of years.”
They pulled it off with their own flair, dominating in rebounds, clamping down on defense in the second half and getting six players in double figures. The Musketeers are deep and balanced and even more dangerous with redshirt freshman point guard Edmond Sumner back in form.
Sumner fell hard in the opening minutes of their game at Villanova on Dec. 31 and was wheeled off the court to a hospital, a moment that left the Musketeers stunned and worried. They played their worst game of the season in a 95-64 loss, their first after opening with 12 straight wins.
“I don’t think we played very hard,” guard J.P. Macura said. “Everybody had energy (on Wednesday). We were crashing the glass, playing well together, hitting the extra guy.”
Xavier had assists on 24 of its 30 field goals. Sumner and Macura each had 19 points, with the point guard adding a career-high nine assists. Sumner showed what Xavier missed in that game in Philadelphia.
“A big difference,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “He’s a big difference-maker.”
Macura usually provides the spark off the bench with his hustle and his fearless shooting. He scored seven consecutive points to start the run that put Xavier ahead in the first half.
“I’ve said this from the time he first stepped on the court at Xavier: He’s never afraid of the big moment,” Mack said.
The Musketeers started getting people’s attention with that convincing win at Michigan on Nov. 20. They also beat Missouri, Alabama, Southern California, Dayton, Cincinnati, Auburn and Wake Forest before getting into Big East play.
They’ve gone 6-1 against Top 25 teams this season. Their No. 5 ranking is the highest in school history. They’ve never gotten better than a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and have never reached a Final Four, coming close a couple of times.
The win over Villanova put them in the discussion about teams that should be considered the favorites.
“We know we’re capable of competing against anyone in the country,” guard Myles Davis said. “We knew we had to prove ourselves against Villanova if we want to go far in March.
“Each game we’re going to see something new, something different. March is coming up, so we’ve still got time to get better.”