Xavier clinches an NCAA tournament bid as head coach Chris Mack goes rogue

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NEW YORK — Chris Mack went rogue.

That’s the only way to explain why, with 39 seconds left and a 57-56 lead, Mack picked Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s best free throw shooter on the season, to shoot two. Kethan Savage had just been fouled going to the rim, but a hard fall directly on the small of his back forced Savage to the sideline.

That meant that Xavier was allowed to pick one of the other four players on the floor to shoot the free throws.

There was Kelan Martin, a 77.4 percent free throw shooter, and Andrew Chrabacsz, a 75.0 percent free throw shooter. Then there was center Nate Fowler, a sophomore center who stands 6-foot-11 and shoots 76.9 percent from the line, but he’s only been to the charity stripe 39 times this season and averages under 12 minutes a night.

Fowler would have been the savvy pick.

Xavier’s staff, however, recommended everyone except Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s best free throw shooter this season. And that’s precisely who Mack went with. Like I said, he went rogue, but it was a savvier decision than you may realize. A freshman playing in his first Big East tournament game, and he hadn’t shot a free throw all night?

It worked.

Baldwin went 1-for-2 from the line, and on the ensuing possession, a Trevon Bluiett jumper gave the Musketeers the lead for good. Xavier would go on to win 62-57, a win that should end all the speculation about whether or not the Musketeers are an NCAA tournament team. Xavier entered Thursday having lost six of their last nine games. Those three wins — their only three wins since Feb. 4th — all came against DePaul. Overall, the Musketeers were 5-9 since their star point guard, Edmond Sumner, went down with a torn ACL.

That was enough to raise the question: Is this truly a tournament team?

“We have competitive guys,” Mack said. “They understand what’s at stake. I don’t know how you can’t. [It’s] 2017. Everywhere we go, guys have their phones up to their noses. So I’m sure they’re snapchatting, but at the same time they’re probably checking twitter and seeing the bottom line. We’re aware of all that stuff.”

The answer, in all likelihood, was that Xavier probably had done enough to earn an at-large bid even if they had lost on Thursday, but getting that monkey off their back will make Selection Sunday just that much less stressful.

It also puts the Musketeers in position to make a real run at the Big East title.

They’ll play the winner of Creighton-Providence in the semifinals on Friday night, and neither of those teams are imposing. A win there and a trip to the title game — likely against Villanova — wouldn’t be a bad thing for this group. Even without Edmond Sumner, Xavier is a talented team. They’re physically tough, but not so much mentally. Leadership has been an issue for this group. When this going gets tough, they’ve had a tendency to fold.

The opposite was true on Thursday.

The Musketeers won a game as a scrappy underdog, which is exactly the kind of program they’ve been during their most successful March runs.

And Thursday’s win gives them a chance to do it again this year.