Xavier went from Final Four contender to an afterthought on the national radar during a six-game losing streak earlier this year.
After such lofty expectations entering the season — win the Big East title, make a run in the Big Dance — the Musketeers were just hanging on for their NCAA tournament lives in February and early March.
So it made junior J.P. Macura and his teammates proud of their Sweet 16 appearance, regardless of what happens in Thursday’s West Regional semifinal game against Arizona.
“We battled through adversity the whole year,” the former Lakeville North star said by phone from Cincinnati earlier this week. “I think that’s one of the reasons why I love playing with this team, because we have a lot of tough guys and guys who are willing to work really hard.”
Macura, who averages 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and a team-best 1.4 steals, said he improved his defense and decisionmaking this season. He joined sophomore Edmond Sumner and junior Trevon Bluiett to create one of the best backcourts in the nation.
But on Jan. 29, Sumner suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He was the team’s second-leading scorer (15.0 points per game) and assists leader (5.0).
Macura tweeted the next day: “Praying for my brother [Sumner] to have a fast and healthy recovery.”
After winning the first three games without Sumner, the Musketeers hit a wall in a 73-57 home loss to defending champion Villanova. Leading scorer Bluiett then missed two games because of an ankle injury, including an 83-61 loss at Marquette on Feb. 18.
Even when Bluiett returned, the losses piled up. Macura’s 20 points weren’t enough in Xavier’s sixth consecutive defeat, a 95-84 loss March 1 at home against Marquette. The program’s longest losing streak in 36 seasons culminated on Senior Night.
Xavier’s slide finally ended with two victories against DePaul, in the regular-season finale and the first round of the Big East tournament. But coach Chris Mack’s team really didn’t get a significant confidence boost until upsetting Butler 62-57 in the tournament quarterfinals.
That was a springboard for the NCAA tournament, especially for Bluiett. The 6-foot-6 junior scored 21 points for No. 11 seed Xavier in an opening-round 76-65 victory against No. 6 seed Maryland, and 29 more in a stunning 91-66 victory over third-seeded Florida State.
“I couldn’t have expected it,” Mack said after the second-round blowout of the Seminoles. “I joked with our staff. It’s the first time I put walk-ons in the game in about three months.”
The Musketeers, survivors for most of 2017, are now the last double-digit seed remaining.
Macura, a former Class 4A champion at Lakeville North, appreciates fans from his home state supporting him and Xavier’s turnaround.
“We’re playing our best basketball in March,” he said. “I think people really enjoy watching players who come from the state and try to make it as far as they can in the NCAA tournament.”