Season in Review: Part One covered the departure of Chris Mack and the appointment of Travis Steele as his successor to put the program back together after an unprecedented departure of talent.
Season in Review: Part Two broke down the shaky non-conference start to the season as Steele undertook the task of trying to fit together the pieces he had to build a Big East contender.
Season in Review: Part Three looked at Xavier’s season endangering slump to six straight losses in Big East play after a 3-2 start.
Xavier’s chances for an at large bid ended somewhere in January. At 3-8 in the conference and sporting the 199th defense in the nation, it was going to take something akin to a miracle to get the Musketeers back into the conversation for the NCAA tournament. The numbers showed that Xavier was likely to do the exact opposite of that.
But Travis Steele wasn’t going to go down without a fight in his first season at the helm. Xavier’s effort could have been questioned against Missouri, but even in the six game slump, they played hard. That finally paid off when, for the first time in a month, they beat Creighton behind some genuinely excellent. The offense was still poor enough that the Musketeers needed overtime despite allowing only 59 regulation points.
Travis Steele then had his best coaching game of the year in dispatching Ed Cooley and the the Providence Friars. That still only left Xavier at 13-13, but at least a couple of wins brightened the outlook. Then came a win over Seton Hall in a nailbiter and a thready pulse grew a bit stronger. The season really started to shift when the Musketeers beat Villanova for just the second time since joining the conference. A 17-0 run in the second half had the Cintas rocking and, for the first time in a long time, people glancing at bracket projections. Could this actually happen?
Xavier was tearing back into the race on the back of a rapidly improving defense. The team that Travis Steele had said could be one of Xavier’s best ever finished the season on an 11 game run with a defensive efficiency of 93.2, a number that would have been good for 17th in the nation over the course of a season. From nearly 200th in the nation in defense, they climbed to finish 102nd. Over the last ten games of the season, they were better on defense than even Virginia.
None of that mattered, of course, unless Xavier could #RuntheTable. That dream ended at Butler, like so many dreams (fresh water, a real gymnasium) have. After a win against St. John’s, most bracketologists agreed that Xavier needed to reach the Big East final to be considered for an at large bid, and likely needed the auto bid.
In the end, Xavier had their fate in the hands of Naji Marshall and the mouth of Brian O’Connell. A month after it happened it’s still hard to determine what it was, beyond perhaps television time, that caused O’Connell to call a rising Marshall for a charge after Conor Gillespie’s half slide tackle, half chop block took out Xavier’s injured leading scorer. Xavier simply ran out of gas after that. The Musketeers had roared back into the chase with ferocious defense and the pride that marks every team that pulls on those blue and white uniforms. At MSG, they fell victim to the vagaries of officiating and their own early season shortcomings. The core of Team 98 won’t likely forget the hard earned lessons, and the desperate fight back, that got them there.