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Jonas Hayes is on fire

Xavier’s interim head coach has come in and sparked a renaissance that has the Muskies on the brink of a championship.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Semifinal-St. Bonaventure vs Xavier Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

In basketball, timing is almost everything. If you throw a pass a split second too early it sails into the crowd. If you throw it too late it is intercepted by an opponent. If you dunk a ball a split second after the buzzer in, say, an 8-9 game in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the points don’t count and your rivals find it really funny. All of that is to say that the timing of Jonas Hayes’ ascent to the end seat (figuratively) on Xavier’s bench was probably not what he had in mind for his first time being the man in charge of a college basketball team. Coming in the wake of a late season collapse and the mutual separation of Xavier and Travis Steele, Hayes took over a team that had just lost 8 of 10 down the stretch and scraped by lowly Cleveland State in front of notably ambivalent home crowd. What Hayes has done since then proves that, in the face of determination and tenacity, timing doesn’t have to be everything.

His first task was facing Florida, a team that was on the bubble coming into March, but saw their chances slip away when they lost to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. With the teams level at the break and Xavier losing Paul Scruggs soon after it, Hayes threw out a defensive game plan that choked off the supply to Colin Castleton and made Florida try to beat Xavier from over the top. The players bought in and Xavier ended up winning comfortably thanks to a 39-23 second half margin. Like Xavier, Florida had parted ways with their coach after the season and were playing under an interim who could not adjust to Hayes’ schemes.

Against Vanderbilt just two days later, Hayes task was steeper. Not only was Vanderbilt coached by the man who had led them all season, it was Jerry Stackhouse, who thrives on confusing defenses with the vast array of sets his offense runs. This time, Xavier trailed at the break and saw Vandy lead by double digits in the final frame. Still, Hayes and Xavier found ways to slow down Scottie Pippen Jr, slowly chip away at the lead, and, in crunch time, get stops and buckets. The final lead change came about when Xavier cleared the lane for Adam Kunkel to use his quickness to drive on Vanderbilt’s guards, with shot blocker Liam Robbins unable to influence either play. With the game on the line, Hayes once again pulled the right levers to keep Xavier playing basketball.

All that brings us to St. Bonaventure and Xavier’s matchup in the NIT Semifinal. Mark Schmidt has been with the Bonnies since 2007 and has developed them into a team that plays deliberately and makes their opponent beat them. In the first half of the game, Xavier did just that. With an offensive gameplan built around making shot blocker Osun Osunniyi have to chase rather than stay in the lane, Xavier ripped off runs of 12-0 and 14-0 on their way to building a 19 point first half lead. When the Bonnies hit back in the second half, Hayes rode the scorching hot Adam Kunkel, who has averaged 36 minutes a game under Hayes, and the reinvigorated Zach Freemantle to momentum sapping bucket after bucket. Once the game was all but decided, Xavier broke the Bonnies press with calm precision, turning the ball over once in the final 5:30 on a pass that, ironically, Hayes snagged one handed.

Where his future lies is the subject of much debate at this point with a return to his alma mater Georgia, a rise to the head coaching job at a mid major, or remaining with Xavier under new head coach Sean Miller all being seen as possibilities. What is not the subject of debate is the fact that Hayes has been nearly flawless in grabbing what was left of Xavier’s season and making it exciting. The NIT final awaits, but based on the evidence of the last three games, there will be many more moments in the spotlight to come in the coaching career of Jonas Hayes.