Today continues our look back at the 2011-2012 Xavier season. This season was unlike any other in Xavier basketball history. Never had a Musketeers team started with such high expectations or struggled through such adversity. In a three part series, we'll look at the promising beginning, the Shootout and the fallout, and then the final run to the Sweet Sixteen. When that concludes, we'll take a look forward at the incoming class.
Xavier entered the week of the Crosstown Shootout riding their best start in three years. 7-0, with wins over Georgia, Purdue, Vanderbilt, and Butler, the Musketeers looked poised to improve on their #8 ranking in the national polls. UC came in at 5-2 and had recently lost to the Blue Hose of Presbyterian. Xavier entered the game a clear favorite.
The contest was heated, even before tipoff, Sean Kilpatrick, a starting guard for UC, said when asked if Tu Holloway could start for the Bearcats "Would he, with the players we have now? I would say no." This imbecilic statement meant that the game was contentious from the very off. Four minutes into the game, Xavier students serenaded Sean with a chant of "Who's Kilpatrick?" as he attempted his first free throws. With 17 minutes to play in the game, it was all but over, with Xavier leading 43-27. There was no collapse this time as the Musketeers buried their crosstown rivals 76-53, but the last nine seconds of the game changed the course of the season.With the game academic, Xavier's players set to righting some perceived wrongs. Mark Lyons, never quiet, was taking every opportunity to point out that Xavier was running away with the game. Tu Holloway, who avoided the talking and chest bumping at half time, finally started talking with 18 seconds to play. From that moment, the entire narrative of his career and this season changed.
Tu's proclamation to the UC bench that none of them were like him and this was his city was not well received. Dion Dixon's airball went mostly unnoticed as the Bearcat bench rose to answer Holloway. Mediocre freshman Ge'Lawn Guyn saw the opportunity to rectify some things, and chested up on Tu. Dez Wells interceded more roughly than necessary, and it was on.
There's no point in a blow by blow of the fight now (and we already did that, anyway) because it was what came after the actual physical altercation that was so damaging. The Xavier administration has been excellent both in general, and to us here at Banners, but the decision to put a still very heated Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons in front of the media was probably not a good one. Quotes were ripped out of context, a national media that glorifies the word "killer" freaked out over "gangster," and the sanctimonious St. Mick Cronin capitalized.
From there, suspensions were the only realistic option. Tu, Mark Lyons, Dez Wells, and Landen Amos all earned some time off. As the national media continued to put on a crash course in being out of touch, Xavier had only a week to regroup and get back on the floor. The first game back came against Oral Roberts. What should have been a decent test but a win, instead turned into a 64-42 loss. Down three starters, Xavier never looked much into the game. The message had been sent, the question of whether it was worth it had yet to be answered.
Xavier left the continental US behind in search of some resume boosting wins, some clarity, and the Diamond Head Classic title. Waiting for them in Hawaii were more losses, no answers, and a seventh place finish. Long Beach State was the first opponent. Dan Monson's team would have been a tough out anyway, without Lyons and Wells, they were too much. The long offensive droughts that the team had overcome early in the season plagued them in the loss to The Beach, and again in an inexplicable overtime loss the next night to a pathetic Hawaii team.
The Musketeers didn't have much time to ponder what was wrong, as they squared off against the Salukis of Southern Illinois the very next day. It wasn't a great Christmas present, but Xavier did manage to win, 87-77. The Musketeers staggered out of Hawaii having lost three of four after the Crosstown debacle. Chris Mack and his coaching staff had to be looking forward to a chance to get home and get right.
As the Banners staff celebrated New Year's Eve in a car on the east side of Cleveland, the skid went from bad to worse. Gonzaga represented a chance to earn a resume boosting win and start to right the ship. Instead, Xavier was dominated on the boards, again looked out of ideas on offense, and were dominated by a shooting four in Sam Dower. Worse still, when it came time to close, Tu Holloway couldn't do it and the game slipped away. Gonzaga pulled away and eventually won.
Somehow, it got even worse after that. A 16 point halftime deficit to La Salle was not the start of a massive comeback, and Xavier dropped the conference opener. Things then became bizarre, as, in a story we broke here, the student section was briefly suspended, then unsuspended, then encouraged to attend a "reflection session." All this was further fallout from a fight that was now 27 days in the past.
On the court, things seemed to be working back toward normal. While Tu Holloway was very obviously lacking his joie de vivre, but the team was winning again. Mark Lyons offered "I'm gonna be tough, I'm gonna talk, I'm gonna do what I gotta do. Because when I wasn't, we were losing." Four straight wins, over Fordham, Duquesne, St Joe's, and St. Bonaventure seemed to indicate that the swagger was coming back. Still there though, were the offensive issues, and those weren't going away.
Xavier went to Dayton looking to re-establish A10 dominance. Instead, they were destroyed by Matt Kavanaugh and Kevin Dillard. In a 87-72 loss, Xavier again looked listless and apathetic. The tenacious spirit that had set the Musketeers apart in recent years was crumbling at the very first sign of adversity. Coach Mack was outcoached by the the brother of his predecessor, Tu Holloway was still looking angsty, and the team was right back to floundering. Another loss, just three days later, to Saint Louis put the Musketeers in serious danger of missing a sixth straight A10 championship.
Xavier was up and down from there. Wins against Charlotte and George Washington were marred by more stretches of offensive ineptitude and Tu looking more and more sad on the court. Following that was a trip to Memphis in which Xavier blew a double digit second half lead and lost the game on the strength of allowing a 17-1 run at the end, a bounceback over URI was followed by the disaster at Temple. Xavier was in serious, serious trouble.
Xavier entered the February 18th game against Dayton needing a win as badly as they ever had. The Musketeers were on the bubble for the NCAA tournament and reeling from a crushing loss. Coach Mack seemed to have no answers for why his team was foundering on either the offensive or defensive ends. In desperate need of a win, there was only one place for Xavier to turn.