The NIT, the place where teams whose hopes have been dashed meet teams who dared not hope when the season started. When Xavier met Cleveland State on Tuesday night it was both teams who were trying to pick up the pieces of a season that hadn’t ended the way they wanted. The Vikings had won the Horizon League and were looking for a second straight NCAA tournament bid when they foundered against Wright State. Xavier, well, you know what happened to Xavier.
Joel and I took the opportunity of one of those coveted 9pm Tuesday night tips to get to the Cintas and talk to some people before the game got started. After a five hour drive from the northeast corner of the state to the southwest (it’s way warmer down here, by the way) we arrived a Cintas that was filled with an odd energy and, frankly, not very many people.
The first people I ran into were students Sean Smyth and Kenny Schneider. You may recognize them as being those dudes who sit in the front of the student section near the opposing bench. When asked for their thoughts on being at an NIT game, both replied “Uhhhh...” Yeah, a lot of that going around, boys. Ultimately, Smyth said “It’s a game. When they play, we are here to cheer.” Schneider echoed that sentiment by adding, “might as well enjoy the ride and win this thing.” Both didn’t expect to see much in the way of fans at the game.
And they were right. 30 minutes before the game it wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say that there were more Cleveland State fans than Xavier fans in the Cintas. By game time that had changed, but the Vikes fans were a notable presence all game. Some of those fans had come from as far as Upper Sandusky and weren’t expecting much from their team. “We haven’t played someone like this. It’s a big step up.” Evidently CSU fans hadn’t watched Xavier in the last couple of months.
Not until the second half did the crowd really start to get into the game.
Small but mighty crowd at Cintas tonight. Honestly a fun atmosphere in the second half.— Paul Fritschner (@PaulFritschner) March 16, 2022
We’ll see what it looks like at a more appetizing weekend hour.
Even then, the discontent was palpable. Booing continued pretty much the entire game. Some of it directed toward a refereeing crew led by the incompetent stylings of Tony Chiazza, some of it clearly directed at Travis Steele, and some just headed out in to the uncaring void.
The vibe, as the kids say, for the entire game was that of both a team and fanbase trying to determine exactly what they felt about what was taking place. Xavier’s incredibly slow start certainly helped with the lingering malaise in the arena. Even the more restrained fans were visibly unhappy with what was happening. It was hard to blame any of them.
Despite all of that, the general sense at the end of the game was relief for a win. Travis Steele said his team was “in it to win it” and he expects them to play like it. That may start to take place on Sunday. Last night, the entire feeling was a mixture of disappointment, shock, and, finally, a bit of pleasure in a return to normal. It’s onward and upward from here.