Our Season in Review will be running over the course of the next week. Stay here for a look at all the news surrounding Xavier basketball this year, the breakdown of the season, a review of our predictions, and a look ahead to next year.
In part one of the season in review, we recapped Xavier's red hot start and subsequent disaster in the Bahamas. After that stretch, Xavier was 5-3 and suddenly not looking anything like an NCAA tournament team. Part two of the season in review described Xavier's rebound from that showing and the subsequent demolition of Cincinnati and the increase in momentum heading into the start of the Big East slate. Part three recapped the wild hope that came with beginning conference play 3-0, only to see it dashed with a pitiful stretch from the end of January into early February. Now we will examine the bounce back from adversity, such as it was, and the Muskies final push to the NCAA tournament.
1. Back off the mat
After looking every bit a mid-seed NIT team against Villanova, Xavier needed a quick and effective response to preserve any of their aspirations of meaningful postseason play. In what would turn out to be a very meaningful game aginst eventual Big East Tournament champions Providence, the Musketeers did just enough behind solid efforts from Matt Stainbrook and Justin Martin and that steal by Semaj Christon with time waning. Xavier was back on track, and even X at their worst could handle what Butler threw at them at Hinkle Fieldhouse. A "complete and comprehensive win" was just what the doctor ordered for Xavier, and the hopes that seemed for far fetched eight days before in Philly were once again within sight for Xavier Nation.
Xavier's well documented (by us at least) road struggles continued with a nine point setback to then Buzz Williams led Marquette. Two trends that would largely define the rest of Xavier's season continued to emerge in this game: Xavier was at the mercy of their opponent's ability to hit outside shots, as Jake Thomas did for Marquette, and Jalen Reynolds, coming off a mid-season suspension, was emerging in the low post for X, even as fellow underclassmen James Farr, Myles Davis, and Brandon Randolph were becoming afterthoughts. Reynlods had logged 10 or minutes only once in conference play before this game. He would log less than 15 only once from here on out as he began to make his athleticism play, while keeping his foul count down.
Xavier regained some momentum by hammering a catastrophically bad DePaul squad by 19 at home, a result that reflected equally as poorly on the Blue Demons as it did well on the Musketeers. Even against a team as poor as DePaul, Xavier surrendered 22 three point attempts and turned the ball over 13 times, bad harbingers for their upcoming tests.
2. Back on the mat
Following a return to good form, Xavier fans had high hopes for a trip to perennial Big East power Georgetown. Those hopes were poorly founded as Georgetown blew the Muskies out of the building, with turnovers, foul trouble, and familiar defensive failures all haunting Xavier in this embarrassing loss. Not only did this loss rob Xavier of any momentum they had, it also put them in a precarious position on the bubble and in desperate need of a couple of late season resume boosting wins.
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3. A couple of late season resume boosting wins
A trip to Madison Square Garden was next for Xavier, a cringe inducing though, given their trials on the road, and St. John's play previous to this game, having just had a 6 game winning streak napped by a 3 point loss to Villanova. However, Jalen Reynolds finally came all the way out of his cage, having become more and more involved in the Xavier attack recently, and was way too much for the Johnnies to handle, leading X to a extremely important road win. The defense stepped up, and there was an option other than Stainbrook and Christon on offense, finally Xavier had broken through against a quality opponent on the road and, once again, the season was back on track.
The final day before Spring Break saw X playing host to Creighton, a team that had preyed on Xavier's inability to shut down outside threats earlier in the year. On this night, the Bluejays shot a disastrous 10-34 from beyond the arc, a shooting night that a team so three dependent could not overcome. Xavier was aided by the fact that over 40% of Creighton's misses were pulled down by Justin Martin, who provided the Musketeers with their second straight 16 rebound performance, following Reynolds' 16 against St. John's. X was, once again, riding high and looking forward to Selection Sunday as "a celebration" in the aftermath of two momentous wins.
4. Paths of Glory
If you have been following along with our narrative of the season as a whole, you know it is time for another disaster of a loss to bring Xavier crashing back down to earth and their tournament hopes back into question. That is just what happened on Senior Night at Seton Hall. Xavier got 28 points from Semaj Christon, but surrendered a 5-10 three point shooting performance to Brian Oliver and made just 3 of 22 of their own attempts from beyond the arc. This one sapped the momentum from Xavier (again), and, worse still, cost them the services of big man Matt Stainbrook, as he fell to a knee injury that would hamper the rest of his season. Things scarcely got better as Xavier hosted Villanova for the close of Big East regular season play. Xavier was without their main post presence against the best team in the league, and still managed to hang in and keep the game interesting. Strong contributions from Philmore and Martin, combined with an inefficient but decent game from Christon were never going to be enough for the Muskies, and a pair of losses to end the regular season made the Big East Tournament that much more important for X.
Having finished 3rd in the conference, Xavier was off to NYC to square off against 6 seed Marquette, themselves having come into the season with much higher aspirations. Without Stainbrook inside, Reynolds and Philmore stepped up on the interior, keeping Marquette's bigs from controlling the game and creating second chances. Stainbrook returned from injury early to notch 8 points from the bench, and Dee Davis had possibly his best game of the season, scoring 7 points and passing out 3 assists and 5 steals, all while not turning the ball over. All in all, it was just enough to get the Muskies over the hump and calm their lingering doubts about a return to the NCAA tournament. Next up was Creighton who, unlike during their trip to Cincinnati, were unconscious from beyond the arc, knocking down 16 of their 24 attempts. Needless to say, this left Xavier up against it, but a spirited charge down the stretch showed the fight left in the Musketeers. 23 points from Isaiah Philmore as well as 18 and 6 assists from Christon were not enough, however, and Xavier was left playing the waiting game while Creighton moved on to the finals.
UD Arena was a venue most X fans were more than happy to be leaving behind this season, but it was not to be relegated to Xavier's past just yet. Dayton would play host to the First Four of the NCAA Tournament, a fate which Xavier faced this year (arguably unfairly). The NC State Wolfpack, led by ACC POTY TJ Warren were the Musketeer's only obstacle between them and the field of 64. Stainbrook returned to the starting lineup and was dominant early, but the lack of depth to Xavier's rotation, and the fact that TJ Warren came as good as advertised, relegated the Musketeers to the unfortunate fate of bowing out on the brink of the Big Dance. The chances had run out, the run had ended, and Xavier, and their fans, had left only to reflect on a season of accomplishments and firsts, and look toward what could become of next year.