Take a moment. Take a couple of deep breaths. Look outside at a landscape of snow. Things are going to be alright. Despite what you may have read on Twitter after Xavier lost their first game, the sky is not actually falling on the Musketeers. The eighth best offensive rebounding team and fourth best shot blocking team in the nation, a team that has already beaten USC and lost to Creighton by just four, rebounded, blocked shots, and beat a Xavier team that had played just two games in 34 days.
It would have been the height of foolhardy to expect much more than an eight point loss out of Xavier on Saturday. The suggestion that this was somehow a failure on the part of Coach Travis Steele may ascend to heights even beyond that. Missing his best rebounder Steele was forced to cobble together lineups in order to try and beat UConn at what they do best. Xavier couldn’t do that. The decision to try Dieonte Miles backfired, Miles managed one point and one of Xavier’s paltry 10 offensive rebounds, but his four minutes of playing time were hardly the difference in the game.
What was the difference was preparation. Xavier had four team activities between the win over Providence and tipoff against the Huskies. One of those was the game against Butler, two were practices the day before a game. That left Steele one practice, one (!), in 33 days to implement a gameplan, work offense, work defensive rotations, and get the team ready to play. That isn’t enough time. It’s not as if Xavier has been conducting shootarounds or film review either. The team has been isolated and away from the facilities. That the Musketeers lost a Q2 to the team 38th in the KenPom and 34th in Bart Torvik’s ratings after having just two meetings in the same room shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.
This, of course, doesn’t answer the burning question that the psuedo-intellectual fan on Twitter wants to ask about whether Travis Steele is the man to take this team forward. Perhaps it is worth remembering that in Chris Mack’s third season after 14 games the team was 9-5 and had just lost to La Salle. The next season Mack’s team was 78th in the KenPom and never sniffed the tournament. In Sean Miller’s third season the team was 10-4 after 14 games and had lost to the teams 141st and 98th in the KenPom. Thad Matta was just coming off a 13 point hiding from 146th ranked Duquesne. Skip Prosser led a team in his third season that was also 11-3 but landed in the NIT and lost in the second round there. It’s almost as if judging a coach on his 14th game in his third season is an utterly absurd benchmark.
Steele may yet be the wrong choice for this team. He may yet be the all-time winningest coach in Xavier history. Either way, this game will factor into that endpoint not one whit. One would have to be utterly daft to make this game a data point in any argument. A team coming off the kind of break that has crippled many a team this season came out, played mediocrely, and lost to a very good team that is almost certain to be playing in March. This was not a chance for referendum, it was an unfortunate opponent as Xavier tries to re-find normalcy.
So take a breath, look out at the falling snow, and look ahead to St. John’s tomorrow. That will also be a difficult game against a team that has won six of their last seven and is pushing hard for March. It won’t be the tell-all that it will almost certainly be made to be, but it will be a game that Xavier will have had a chance to prepare. Maybe they’ll even have a full squad for this one. Either way, the story of Xavier’s season is largely yet to be written. It may yet be a great one.