It wasn't that long ago that you could find reasonable people opining on social media that Xavier was a program in crisis. Having missed the last two NCAA tournaments through disappointing ends to seasons, Xavier was at a pivotal point.
Vital pieces Nate Johnson and Paul Scruggs were still in limbo, pondering - or at least not having announced - the decision of whether or not to return for a super senior year. CJ Wilcher - fresh off of making believers of the Xavier faithful with a strong end to the season - had put his name in the transfer portal. So had Kyky Tandy, a dynamic and arguably underused scorer whose fall from the rotation had mirrored Wilcher's rise. The departures of senior forwards Jason Carter and Bryan Griffin seemed like foregone conclusions.
Fast forward to the present day and things have worked out about as well as they could have. Of the guard/wing players in the corridor of uncertainty, only CJ Wilcher decided to go, landing at Nebraska. His departure frees up just 10 minutes per game. Johnson, Scruggs, and Tandy have all chosen to return and battle for minutes in a crowded back court.
Griffin and Carter, both of whom battled injuries and illness all season, both chose to depart. To cover, Xavier has added Iowa transfer Jack Nunge, a 6'11" big man who can step in and control the paint, freeing Zach Freemantle to really explore the court with his expanding skill set.
Pick a meaningful stat and Xavier has returned 7 of their top 8 or 9 players in it.
This has to be the year for Travis Steele. He has a team that is veteran (Scruggs, Johnson, Freemantle, Kunkel, Nunge, Tandy, Dieonte Miles, and Ben Stanley all have at least two years of college experience under their belts) and experienced in the system (Scruggs, Freemantle, Miles, and Tandy all have multiple years under Steele, and Johnson, Stanley, Kunkel, Dwon Odom, and Colby Jones have all completed one season under Steele).
The roster churn of the Mack-to-Steele transition seems fully in the rearview now. For the first time since he took the seat, Steele isn't trying to blood in half a rotation of new guys on the fly. He has a roster that, except for Paul Scruggs, is comprised wholly of guys he brought in, and a rotation comprised almost exclusively of players who already know the system.
The #FireSteele crowd has been vocal. On our pages and Twitter feed, we've tried to be reasonable both in defense and critique of the coach and his performance. With this roster under him, expectations will be high and excuses will be few for Coach Steele.
For all that 2021-22 should be the year if Steele wants to prove his mettle, it also needs to be the building block for the program to be on solid footing going forward. While Scruggs and Johnson will have well and truly exhausted their eligibility, unavoidable turnover will otherwise be minimal. Theoretically, Stanley and Kunkel still have two years of eligibility left, Freemantle, Tandy, and Nunge have three, and Odom and Jones still have all four. There is still some ambiguity around exactly how the NCAA will rule on Nunge and Stanley's eligibility, but Steele potentially has seven rotation players in place for 2022-23 already.
In the span of a couple of weeks, Steele has shored up Xavier's biggest positional question mark and rebutted at least some of the whispers about the culture by having three players - including one who was unquestionably marginalized by the end of the year - choose to come back and take part in what he's building at Xavier.
We've argued on this site that Xavier fans should have patience with Travis Steele as he shapes the program. By this time next year, I think we'll know if we were right.