Last season, Xavier basketball had their best year ever. They won the Big East, one of the best conferences in the nation, they were ranked in the top 10 for thirteen weeks and finished ranked #3 in the AP poll, and they won 29 games and earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The amount Xavier lost in both players and coaches has been well documented, but the fact remains there has been a steep decline in the team’s performances this season from last. The best win thus far is an Illinois squad that is not regarded as a team with even an outside shot at the NCAAs and last weekend’s Crosstown Shootout saw the second largest defeat for Xavier since 2002. All that being said, as bleak as things are right now, Xavier basketball has a history of excelling as the underdog and building from dark days to come good in the big moments. Sometimes it just takes a times getting kicked while they are down to get there.
Before the year 2000, Xavier had been a single digit seed in the NCAA Tournament a total of four times, this was a team that thrived on being the underdogs. In 1996, UC came into the Crosstown Shootout ranked #1 in the country, but found the scrappy upstarts in blue to be too much for them. Three years later, it happened again. As far back as 1987, Byron Larkin was leading a 13 seeded Musketeers squad to an improbable upset of Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Later Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato would take the 2004 squad, who had never been ranked the the top 25, to the brink of the Final Four via upset wins over 2 seed Mississippi State and 3 seed Texas. Even Xavier’s best player ever, David West, came to school as a recruit outside the top 100 and left after becoming an All American and National Player of the Year. This is a program well versed in being the underdog: counted out, overlooked, and yet still triumphant.
Since joining the Big East, still on the nation’s premier college basketball conferences, Xavier has transitioned from being the underdog to being the favorite. Teams built around heralded recruits like Trevon Bluiett have garnered Xavier three single digit seeds in the past four seasons and ushered in the expectation that Xavier will compete at the top of the Big East and be ready to make noise as winter turns to spring. Such may not be the case this season, but it may be worth bearing in mind where this program has come from and why we love it. Tu Holloway isn’t a Xavier legend because he was a one and done type talent who came in and seamlessly adjusted to the college game. What he did was will Xavier to a win over Purdue in a game where they looked dead and buried and fearlessly banked in that runner over 6’9” behemoth Jack Cooley to sink Notre Dame in the first round of the tournament. Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook were never going to be mistaken for the high-flying physical specimens you typically see at the high major level, but there has perhaps never been a duo of Xavier players that played with more smarts, guile, and outright guts than the two seniors who pushed a highly rated Arizona squad to their limit in the Sweet Sixteen. Even the most recent March run Xavier had came after a season of travails which saw Ed Sumner lost to injury and Tre with one functioning ankle grab a game by the scruff of the neck at MSG to even get X’s named called on Selection Sunday.
All that is to say this: there is still a chance for Xavier to turn this season around. After all, their first Elite Eight team once sat at 10-9 having lost 5 of 6 to Atlantic 10 opposition. Xavier is back to being the underdog for now, probably for good reason, but if the history of this program tells us anything it is that the Musketeers are dangerous when they are being counted out.