An at-large bid is gone. Xavier, for the first time in a long time, isn't on the bubble, isn't in the bracket, isn't anywhere. This season started badly almost as soon as the last one ended, and hasn't really gotten a whole lot better. Now, Xavier needs four wins in four days to make the NCAA tournament. After a relatively tame draw with St. Joseph's in the first round of the Atlantic 10, the VCU Rams wait if the Musketeers win.
This isn't the first time that Xavier has been staring down the barrel of a nearly impossible task in order to make the NCAA tournament. In both 2004 and 2006, Xavier won four games in four days in the A10 tournament to grab an NCAA bid that was anything but a certainty throughout the season. Those teams (especially the 2004 squad) have gone down in Xavier lore because of their efforts. To fully understand the task ahead of these Musketeers, it's helpful to look at the past.
The 2004 Run
In 2003-04 Thad Matta had squad with two 16 point per game scorers, two players who shot over 40% from deep, and the relentless effort of Justin Cage. What he didn't have, at least in late January, was a prayer of making the NCAA tournament. Xavier started 10-9 overall and 2-5 in conference.
The rough start had featured losses to a bad Indiana team, Ball St, and Duquesne. Equally lame wins came over Elon, Morehead St, and Mercer. Xavier didn't start to get things turned around until the Crosstown Shootout against UC on February 3rd. After that, the Musketeers ripped off six straight before somehow losing to Duquesne again. That loss to the Dukes left X at 17-10 (8-6) and on the very fringes of the bubble. Season ending wins over George Washington and a very down Temple team left Xavier heading to their tournament at 10-6 in conference and very much needing to win.
The first bump in the road was a very bad St. Bonaventure team that Xavier buried with a 53 point first half. The second half was a mostly academic exercise and gave Matta a chance to rest starters and get Tom Compton and Keenan Christiansen some time. After that came a 27-1 and #1 in the nation St. Joseph's team. A loss and Xavier was out of NCAA tournament contention and on the way back home. Instead, the Msuketeers held the Hawks in check and then closed the first half on a 16-5 run, and led 43-21 at the break. The lead stretched to as far as 30 in the second half as X rode 24/11/2 from Romain Sato. Incredibly, Xavier beat the number one team in the nation by 20 despite turning the ball over 26 times!
After that win Sports Illustrated finally moved Xavier into their projected bracket. Bracketology wasn't a thing on ESPN yet, but archived bubble watch articles show that not everyone thought X was quite in yet. Next, George Washington loomed in the semifinals. GW was a decent team that year, but a loss would have bounced Xavier right back on to the precarious bubble. Lionel Chalmers poured in 26 in a 70-47 win that sealed the Musketeers as a tournament team. The Flyers of Dayton fell the next day in the title game, 58-49, and Xavier was headed to the Elite Eight.
Similarities to the 12-13 Musketeers: 1. Defensive rebounding. Both teams excel in holding opponents to one shot on most possessions. While the national averages have changed enough to make the percentages meaningless, it's worth noting that the 2004 squad was 76th in the nation, and this year's is 60th. 2. Pace. Both teams also preferred to play at a tempo 2.1 possessions slower than the national average. 3. A can't miss big man. Anthony Myles shot 53.6% in the 2004 campaign, and Travis Taylor is at a very similar 53.9% so far this year. Both big men also had to most of their work surrounded by free shooting guards.
Differences from the 12-13 Musketeers: Nearly everything else. The 2004 squad took care of the ball, scored from deep, didn't crash the offensive glass, was 20th in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and stole the ball frequently. The three point shooting really stands out though. The 2004 team was able to score in bunches by taking 36.7% of their shots from behind the arc and getting 32.3% of their points from there. In comparison, this year's squad takes only 25.3% of shots from deep and only gets 20.6% of their points from there. Those are not the numbers of a giant killer. The 2004 group also had two players (Sato and Chalmers) average over 16 points per game and had 10 players average more than seven minutes a game.
Verdict: The 2004 team is a bit mis-cast as plucky underdogs who made a heroic run. In reality this was possibly the greatest Xavier team of all time, it just took a bit to get all the parts in order. After starting 10-9, they won 16 of their last 18 games. Matta's squad also started with St. Joe's in the tournament with the favorite looming in the second round and were able to take care of business. This team certainly does not fit that billing. If it's reason to believe that a run can happen again that we seek, 2004 isn't the place to look.
Tomorrow I'll have a look at the other Xavier team to win four games in four days, the 2006 squad. 2004 didn't offer much hope due to the fact it was simply a great team peaking at the right time. Is the 2006 squad a better match for this year's team?