clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

It's now or never for Travis Steele at Xavier

It's hard to overemphasize how important this season is for Travis Steele.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Butler vs Xavier Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier is supposed to make the NCAA tournament. Xavier is supposed to make regular runs to the Sweet 16. This is what the fanbase expects of the program. If you started paying attention anytime within the last 40 years, the program has paid out on this expectation.

Travis Steele is entering his fourth season presiding over the men's basketball program. In his first three seasons, he has coached a grand total of zero NCAA tournament games. While there is a general (albeit not universal) sense that the program is heading in the right direction under Steele, it is the destination, not the journey, that has Xavier fans tuning in. The seat has to be getting warm under Steele.

There are, of course, reasonable explanations for every Selection Sunday that has come and gone without Steele's team hearing its name called. In his initial season, he took over a program decimated by attrition - Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, Sean O'Mara, Kerem Kanter, and Kaiser Gates all left for paying positions - with few obvious replacements thanks to lackluster recruiting at the end of the Mack era. Despite that, he had the team playing as well as any in the league down the stretch and was within a blown block/charge call by Brian O'Connell of beating Nova and sealing an at-large bid.

That summer, Xavier welcomed Zach Freemantle, Kyky Tandy, and Dieonte Miles to the roster.

The next season, there was no NCAA tournament thanks to covid. Had there been, it's not clear that Xavier would have been invited. The Muskies were 19-10 on March 1 before losing Paul Scruggs to injury. An 0-3 finish with losses to Providence, Butler, and DePaul likely had the Muskies on the outside looking in if there had been a tournament.

That summer, Xavier welcomed Dwon Odom and Colby Jones to the roster.

Last year, Steele's third in charge, got out of the blocks well. Thirteen games into the season, the team lacked a marquee win but sat at 11-2 and looked well-positioned to earn an at-large bid. Then came an avalanche of covid pauses that no doubt contributed at some level to the subsequent injury problems the team faced. When the dust cleared, Xavier played just 9 games between January 10 and March 10 - a span that has 15 games plus two rounds of Big East tournament play this season - and staggered to a 13-8 overall record. Any hopes of tournament inclusion died in a 70-69 Big East tournament loss to Butler; Xavier led that game by 19 at one point.

Three years, no NCAA bids, 1-3 in Big East tournament play. Back-to-back losing seasons in conference for the first time in living memory. These are not lines on a resume that Xavier basketball is accustomed to seeing.

Despite that, a portion of the fanbase is still excited about Travis Steele. He's young, still looking ahead to his 40th birthday. He recruits very well. He says and does many of the right things, preaching accountability in press conferences and buying drinks at Dana's after every Shootout victory. He's spent the bulk of his adult life on the Xavier bench, where he was groomed to step into the role he currently owns. His teams play hard for him.

Questions abound about his actual basketball coaching ability. He seems to get locked into game plans and rotations, making adjustments too late or not at all. He can't seem to find minutes for fan favorite Kyky Tandy but had plenty of them for fan not-favorite Jason Carter. His offenses have wavered between streaky and absent without leave.

He looks the part, but can he actually play it?

This year, the string is out. He has a roster loaded from top to bottom with talent. Dwon Odom, Kyky Tandy, Adam Kunkel, Ben Stanley, and Zach Freemantle wouldn't be a hateful unit to have on the floor for the opening tip; none of them started Xavier's exhibition game. The depth on the team is a testament to Steele's good work, but it has removed any roster-related excuses that could have been made for him.

Covid pauses seem to be a thing of the past. The roster is full of players Steele himself brought in, excepting only super senior and preseason all-conference first team guard Paul Scruggs. The system, the staff, and the team are all Steele's. The program carries his fingerprints from top to bottom. He has done everything except take Xavier back into the NCAA tournament. If he fails to do so this season, I'd be surprised to see him get another shot.