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Three games that cost Travis Steele his job

A couple of bounces either way and Xavier might be in their third consecutive NCAA tournament. Instead, he’s left to wonder what might have been.

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Xavier The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

As you may have heard, Xavier has fired head coach Travis Steele. Steele had been with the program in some capacity for 15 years, stepping in 4 seasons ago to take the head coaching job for which he had been groomed for some time. Obviously, it didn’t end well.

It didn’t have to, though. Steele had Xavier in the mix for an at-large bid every year there was an NCAA tournament. If a couple of things had gone differently on the court, we’d be talking about a big contract extension for him instead. Reasonable differences in outcomes could have us talking now about how Xavier is a machine when it comes to replacing coaches. We all know the season-ending losses in the last three years were disasters; here are three other games that could have changed X from a bubble contender to a tournament team and Travis Steele from unemployed to... not.

March 15, 2019: Villanova 71 - Xavier 67 (OT)

In the second round of Steele’s first Big East tournament, he had turned the team into a defensive juggernaut down the stretch. After being 11-13 and on the heels of a six-game losing streak, they ripped off 7 of 8 to put themselves in contention for an at-large bid. A win against Villanova on a neutral court would have gotten it done.

Through 54 possessions, Xavier had given up 48 points to Nova and led by 7 with 4 minutes to play. Down the stretch, the Muskies couldn’t muster a bucket, and a Zach Hankins split from the line left Nova down just 2. Eric Paschall tipped in a Phil Booth miss to tie the game with nine seconds left. Naji Marshall took a long floater to try to finish the game in regulation. It didn’t fall, but Collin Gillespie slid under him in an obvious block.

Never one to miss a chance to make a game about himself, Brian O’Connell called it a charge. Instead of sending Naji to the line with a chance to win the game, O’Connell fouled him out. Xavier couldn’t get over the hump in OT, and they ended up heading to the NIT. One correct call and one made FT here and Xavier is almost certainly dancing in Steele’s first year.

March 6, 2021: Marquette 66 - Xavier 59

After the 2020 tournament that Xavier definitely would have made got cancelled, the Muskies embarked on one of the weirdest seasons ever in 2020-2021. Nobody really knew how to read the bubble, but everyone agreed Xavier was on it. After an 8-0 start, they staggered through a mid-season punctuated by covid pauses just as team who had played fewer games earlier hit a stride. They went into the regular season finale with consensus opinion being that a win at Marquette would propel Xavier into the tournament.

Things started fairly poorly, and the Muskies were down 8 at the half. True to form under Steele, they came out and rallied. Nine minutes into the half, they tied the game. Just four minutes after that, they were back down seven. In one disastrous 10-possession sequence, Xavier gave up 20 points and got just 1 stop. Despite that, Xavier had the ball down 3 with just over two minutes to play. From there on, they went 0-5 from behind the arc - two from Scruggs, two from Kunk, and one from Freemantle - and never quite got where they needed to be.

That loss propelled Xavier into a Wednesday matchup in the Big East Tournament that suddenly had massive bubble leverage. We all know how that went. With just one or two more stops or maybe someone able to hit the ocean with a cannonball from deep - X was 4-24 from beyond the arc on the day, with CJ Wilcher being 2-5 - the Muskies pick up a win that has them playing for seeding instead of their lives in the Big East Tournament.

February 23, 2022: Providence 99 - Xavier 92 (3 OT)

A Xavier team that was once in consideration for a top-four seed spent a solid six weeks saying that they just needed one more win to punch their ticket. After starting scalding hot and piling up big wins in the non-conference schedule, Xavier clubbed Marquette and then was up 10 just before halftime at Nova, arguably the high-water mark of the season. That game derailed late, then a 17-game covid pause due to covid in other programs robbed the team of any momentum it had.

Steele didn’t have the team playing particularly well, but he did have them playing hard. Xavier matched the eventual conference champion and second-best team in the conference Friars shot for shot the whole way, and they had Providence gassed and chasing momentum late. Then the roof started leaking.

With a prolonged pause in the action to let Providence’s shooters find their legs again, the AJ Reeves hit a big three to tie the game and Adam Kunkel’s game-winning stepback over Nate Watson came up just short. X took but couldn’t hold a 5-point lead in the first OT. Providence took but couldn’t hold a 4-point lead in the second OT. The home team finally pulled away in the third overtime thanks to a 28-foot bomb from Jared Bynum, and the best win of the year went by the boards for X. There’s not enough coherence in what the committee did this year to know if that would have made the difference, but I think it would have been a huge boost.

Obviously, this is all what my dad would call “woulda, shoulda, coulda” kind of stuff. Results that didn’t come to be can’t be part of a coach’s case when it comes time to consider whether or not to keep him. It’s interesting to note that, in addition to whatever shortcomings you want to point out that Steele had, things beyond his control - bad officiating, momentum-robbing pandemic issues, poor architecture - inarguably contributed to his teams not meeting their potential. Steele always had his teams thisclose to getting there. In the end, he was probably thisclose to keeping his job.