Xavier proves its mettle by solving Villanova riddle

CINCINNATI -- Xavier had already established itself as one of the best teams in the country this year, winning 24 of its first 27 games and rising to No. 5 in the polls. Yet when it came to the Big East, the Musketeers found themselves looking up, still vexed by Villanova.

The Wildcats were the one Big East team Xavier had not beaten since joining the league in 2013, and their previous meeting this season ended with a 31-point embarrassment in Philadelphia on New Year's Eve.

"We knew we were capable of beating anybody in the country, but we had to prove ourselves against Villanova," Xavier guard Myles Davis said. "Especially if we wanted to go far in March or if we wanted people to pay attention to us."

How's this for an attention-grabber: The Musketeers dismantled the top-ranked Wildcats 90-83 in the Cintas Center on Wednesday night with a wildly impressive effort on both ends of the floor. The Big East officially has two strong Final Four contenders, and Xavier might actually pose the bigger threat if it can repeat this kind of performance next month.

Chris Mack's deep, unselfish team came into the night projected as a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology and enhanced its chances for a possible No. 1, particularly if it could run the table through the Big East tournament. There might even be another meeting with Villanova in Madison Square Garden along the way, though it would be hard for the Musketeers to approach it with as much emotion as they exerted before a sold-out home crowd.

Several times Wednesday night, players asked for even more noise from the fans. They celebrated after dunks and made 3-pointers. This win clearly meant a lot to everyone around the program, including the students who waited in line for several hours in the cold and drizzle to get into the arena.

"Everybody reminds you that none of these guys have beaten Villanova since we've been in the league, the average margin of victory, yada, yada, yada," Mack said. "Our team was able to shrug all that stuff off."

It did so by doing things to Villanova that most teams can't. The Wildcats are fifth nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense rankings, yet Xavier sliced and diced that defense for 50 percent shooting and an ultra-efficient 24 assists on 30 made field goals. Three Villanova players fouled out, and a fourth, Daniel Ochefu, dealt with foul trouble most of the night as Xavier went to the free throw line 33 times.

This was a monumentally different game than the first matchup, won 95-64 by Villanova. Of course, Musketeers point guard Edmond Sumner played less than three minutes that day before leaving on a stretcher. On Wednesday night, he stretched the Wildcats defense to its breaking point. Sumner scored 19 points (15 of them in the second half), dished out a career-high nine assists and added six rebounds.

"Big difference," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "He's tough to keep out of the lane. He makes it easy for those shooters to get shots."

Sumner's quick-twitch penetration -- he also got to the foul line 13 times -- played an integral role. But Xavier showed off how many interchangeable parts it has, and how difficult it is to focus on any one of them.

Six different players scored in double figures, and eight played at least 17 minutes. Mack's 1-3-1 zone can cause fits for teams not used to seeing it, yet Wednesday he countered Villanova's familiarity with the defense by using more man-to-man. That helped shut down leading scorers Josh Hart (4-for-13 from the field) and Ryan Arcidiacono (3-for-11, 1-for-6 on 3s). Wright's team also hurt itself by missing several good looks near the rim and no doubt gave its fans nightmarish flashbacks to past NCAA tournament flameouts.

Xavier owns a better recent bracket track record than the Wildcats, and this looks like Mack's best team yet, with room to grow as freshmen Sumner and Kaiser Gates continue to come along.

"I still think we can get better," Davis said. "You're going to see the same depth we've had and see guys playing hard. March is coming up, and we've still got time to get better."

At halftime, with Xavier leading by just three points, the Cintas Center announcer began advising fans not to rush the court. And when it was over, the crowd dutifully stayed in their seats despite knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation and their No. 1 nemesis.

“It would have been odd to storm the court since we’re No. 5,” Mack said. “This team has bigger fish to fry.”

And now that it’s finally figured out how to beat Villanova, Xavier can have even bigger goals in mind.