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A strange end

Xavier’s season didn’t end in the way we’ve come to expect

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament-Villanova vs Xavier
Heavy is the head
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier’s season ended in a backwater. Far from the bright lights of Columbus and other first weekend sites, the Musketeers fought and lost in front of less than 2,000 fans. A disjointed season came to an end on a Sunday afternoon on ESPN.

For Zach Hankins, Ryan Welage, and Kyle Castlin, it was more than just a season, it was a career. All three came to Xavier, undoubtedly, for the chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Instead, they ended up in Austin, Texas playing in a game that even the home team’s fans didn’t care about. The almost birthright of Xavier, the Sweet 16, played out far away on the CBS family of stations while the Musketeers battled for another chance to play at Madison Square Garden.

Back on the 29th of January I said that the at large was gone for Xavier. Come the 15th of March, the auto bid was gone as well. At that moment, it felt a lot like the season had already ended. The NIT became a strange sort of postscript to that. How does one get ready for the NIT bracket release? Is there bracketology? When are these games even played, anyway? Xavier Nation was in a place it hadn’t been since 2000. Freshman at Xavier right now have never seen the Musketeers in the NIT, a generation older remembers but is far more used to seeing blue in white on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

If it was hard to for fans to adjust, it must have been more difficult for the players. The entire season is built around the idea of playing in March on the grand stage, not in a competition where the rules of basketball have changed. For a few minutes against Toledo, that conundrum for the players was evident. The effort that had characterized Xavier’s desperate race back to relevance was dimmed as the Rockets, a team for whom the NIT was advancement, tore into the game.

That changed, though, as Travis Steele and the Musketeers got stuck in. Against Toledo and Texas, Xavier found their aggression and drive. Even on Sunday as free throws went astray and layups went begging, no one quit. The program’s insistence on competing for every single second was evident. There is a certain pride that must come with wearing the uniform that every player kept demonstrating.

But nothing could erase the feeling of something being just a little bit off. Xavier’s season is well and truly over now. The ghosts in the fog feeling of the past couple weeks is gone, replaced by that familiar feeling that everything is over. Even that lands without the finality it usually does. The last week felt something like a wake for Team 97. Finally, though, Xavier fans can move on to acceptance. Until Team 98, there is no more basketball to be played.