By the time March rolls around each season we know roughly what each team. More than roughly, even, we know their strengths and weaknesses, we know what kind of teams they can beat and what kind can beat them. We can see that Texas will struggle with Abilene Christian, even if we don’t have the guts to pick it.
The season doesn’t start that way. To look back into October (or in this season, November) is to see a different top 25 or different KenPom than the way the season ends. Gonzaga may remain a constant at the top of the polls, but below them everything chops and changes as the season goes along. The expectations of the preseason meet the reality of the season, sometimes with disastrous consequences for programs. Somewhat opposite the world of the romance poets, the world of college basketball starts with hearts aflutter and optimism burgeoning in October and ends with the hammer of reality in March.
For Xavier this season the expectations were clear: make the tournament. Expecting that was by no means outside the realm. The Sweet 16 even seemed more than reasonable. The second weekend for a long time seemed Xavier’s birthright, this roster could go back there. Xavier was 65th in the KenPom when the season tipped, but that number seemed fantastically low for a team returning Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle and bolstered by a great recruiting class. Bart Torvik had Xavier at 53rd and up into the 30s after just one game.
And that roster. Kyky Tandy was back and looking explosive. Dwon Odom, Colby Jones, and CJ Wilcher joined with Dieonte Miles to make a freshman class loaded with talent. Transfers Adam Kunkel and Nate Johnson were brought in to shore up Xavier’s dreadful shooting, while Ben Stanley and Bryan Griffin brought depth to the post position.
Xavier also returned a coach with some experience. Travis Steele may or may not have led a team to the NCAA tournament in 2019-20, but he was no longer unfamiliar with coaching in do or die situations. He also had a staff that had coalesced around him over the last two seasons. All of this seemed to add up to a team that could challenge for a place in the NCAA tournament and perhaps much more. Joel said in a season preview, “I’m guardedly optimistic that Xavier’s roster has the pieces to get the Muskies back into the second weekend.”
Not everyone was so bullish. Xavier was picked to finish seventh in the Big East preseason coaches poll. The gap that yawned between fifth and sixth above Xavier spoke to how little the rest of the conference rated the Musketeers. The NCAA was unwilling to let the season’s expectations go without being needlessly cruel either, depriving Xavier of Adam Kunkel and, most spitefully, Ben Stanley in the week before games started for no reason other than that it seemed they could.
The day before Thanksgiving the season started. When it did Xavier was in good position in the computer polls, receiving attention in the human ones, and with a roster and coach that seemed poised to make a step in the right direction. When expectation met with reality things would change, but at the start we expected Xavier to be playing late in March. How quickly things can change.