Xavier's season, it should be noted, is not over. There is still technically a chance, I guess, that the committee puts them into the NCAA tournament. If that doesn't happen, there's always the possibility of an NIT bid. Despite that, the season we thought we were we were getting when X was running Oklahoma off the floor in December is truly dead and buried.
So what happened? A lot of things, obviously. The most glaring is Covid.
When Xavier was putting the finishing touches on Oklahoma, they were moving to 7-0. At that time, nobody in the nation had played as many games. From that point forward, the wheels fell off.
Xavier had games against Providence, Seton Hall, and DePaul cancelled before playing three straight: a win against Marquette and losses to Creighton and Seton Hall. After losing the chance to host Nova to the pandemic, Xavier beat St. John's and Providence.
At that point, Xavier was 10-2. It was January 10th. The Muskies wouldn't play for another 20 days and would never find their stride again.
During that pause, Xavier had games against Villanova, Seton Hall, Connecticut, and Georgetown cancelled and a game against Butler pushed back a day.
Xavier won that game and they didn't play again for another two weeks. From January 10th to February 13th, X played once.
That's obviously a disaster. Coach Steele said in a recent press conference that the team, in addition to losing 10 games to Covid, lost more than 40 practices. For a team relying on underclassmen and transfers, that was debilitating.
Injuries were also a factor. Nate Johnson was the most reliable three-point shooter on a team often gasping for floor spacing; he missed Xavier's final 5 games and they went 1-4 without him. Jason Carter battled ankle injuries that kept him from participating in anything but games from late December through mid-February. His cover could well have been Ben Stanley, but his season ended with a knee injury on January 6th against St. John's.
Apart from all of the things outside of Xavier's control, I think reasonable people will have some questions about things X could control. Since the buck stops with the man in the head seat, Travis Steele will get most of the inquiries here.
First and foremost are questions about Steele's roster management. The losses of Johnson and Stanley hurt, but it seems to the outside observer that Kyky Tandy and Bryan Griffin could have been called upon to fill those roles. Instead Coach Steele rode or died with Adam Kunkel and Jason Carter and their nearly identical ORtgs of 98.8 and 98.2 respectively. Kunkel's three-point percentage of 26.5% was almost 10 points lower than Tandy's on the season, and Griffin posted a better ORtg, rebounding percentage at both ends, and block rate than Carter in limited action. In a season defined by fine margins, it's fair to ask if different substitution patterns could have made the difference.
Game management was also a question. With Johnson down, Xavier often struggled to come out of the locker room looking like a team prepared to play offense at all. Some of that is execution, but preparing the team both in terms of strategy and mentality falls on the coach. On the occasions that Xavier did have a lead, you don't need me to remind you how much trouble they had holding one.
Specific issues have been patterns under Coach Steele. The team has shot miserably from behind the arc for three straight years. They have not enjoyed the success on the defensive glass that prior iterations of Xavier did, which has hamstrung their defensive efforts. Toughness has - sometimes unfairly - been questioned.
There is some sense in which Steele can't win with the supporters. The same segment of the fan base that called for him to bench Q and Naji last year because of perceived attitude problems and lack of basketball IQ spent much of this year crowing for Kyky to play more despite having many of the same critiques for him. If fans want the coach to define the culture by a standard rather than just playing the most talented guys - and make no mistake, all three of the player mentioned in this paragraph have talent - they have to live with the bumps and bruises along the way.
Of course, winning cures a lot of ills. If a couple breaks went Xavier's way over the past couple of weeks and they had won three very winnable games, there would be fewer people in my mentions quibbling over the handling of the second unit.
It's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a season like this. We'll never know who was sick, how badly, or how long they were below 100%. We'll never know what Coach Steele would have implemented given 40 additional practices to get things in place. It is fair to have critiques of the coaching this season, but they should be tempered with the understanding of just how difficult a situation the coach was in.
Like me, most of you reading this probably woke up bummed out today. For the third straight year, circumstances both within and outside of anyone's in the program's control have conspired to bring the season to an unsatisfactory close.
Despite that, the future is bright. Nobody Coach Steele has signed from a full recruiting cycle is an upperclassman yet. Xavier got 50 of their 69 points last night from players who will be back next season, and that's not considering whatever Ben Stanley might contribute. Travis Steele has demonstrated he can bring in impact players in the transfer market and that he can grab unheralded recruits who can contribute immediately.
There is likely some of this season left for Xavier. It likely won't be what the fans were hoping for. While much of the blame for that will fall on the head coach, it remains to be seen what that means for the program going forward.