CINCINNATI — Last season, the Xavier Musketeers were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and had some pundits listing them among the Final Four favorites.
That was March. National recognition in November is something new on Victory Parkway.
Xavier, which opens the regular season against Lehigh on Friday (7 p.m.) at Cintas Center, is ranked No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll, the highest preseason rating in school history.
The Musketeers' highest previous ranking in the preseason was 10th in 1997-98 and 2002-03. However, coach Chris Mack said he is not concerned about his players absorbing that praise.
“I don't worry about the attention,” Mack said. “It helps that people talk about you. It helps in recruiting. I know fans get excited. But, it's really about what we do between the lines. I do think we have some older players that are used to having a businesslike attitude.”
It helps to have the top two scorers returning, junior guard Trevon Bluiett (15.1 points per game) and sophomore guard Edmond Sumner (11.0 ppg).
Bluiett lost around 20 pounds during the summer to become quicker and more athletic to the rim.
Sumner missed three games last season with a head injury but still compiled 112 assists. He is poised for a huge year, one that could propel him up the NBA Draft ladder.
Both Bluiett and Sumner were named preseason first-team All-Big East Conference. Junior guard J.P. Macura, the Big East's sixth man of the year last season, also returns.
The Musketeers will be without a couple of key contributors on Friday. Sophomore forward Kaiser Gates is out with a knee injury, and senior guard Myles Davis is suspended due to allegations in an ongoing domestic-violence case.
Xavier, which was ranked ninth in the final AP poll last year, is picked to finish second in the Big East behind defending national champion Villanova. Still, the Musketeers aren't thinking too highly of themselves.
“We don't really focus too much on preseason rankings,” Macura said. “Last year we weren't ranked (in the preseason) and we had a great season. We just have to take every day, practice with energy, and everything else will take care of itself.”
The Friday game is Xavier's first since losing to Wisconsin on a buzzer-beater in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, a defeat that took months for the Musketeers to move past.
Xavier won't look past Lehigh on Friday, though. As Sumner said earlier this week, the Mountain Hawks are “not a slouch.”
Xavier is 2-0 all-time against Lehigh, including a narrow 69-63 win in 2004. This season, the Hawks are a near-unanimous favorite to win the Patriot League title, receiving all but three first-place votes. Senior forward Tim Kempton, a two-time Patriot League player of the year, is picked to win it for a third time. Junior guard Kahron Ross is a first-team all-league selection.
Lehigh returns its top four scorers from last year's squad that won 11 consecutive games before losing a heartbreaker in the Patriot League championship game.
“I think this team learned a lot from going through the journey last season,” said coach Brett Reed, who is in his 10th season as Lehigh's head coach. “They are hungry for a new opportunity. However, they will need to take the lessons learned and apply them this upcoming year if we're going to be even stronger, which will be needed to win a championship.”