There will be people who blame this loss on the coach. Those people are idiots who should be ignored. Have whatever opinion you like on Steele, and almost all of them are valid, but tonight wasn’t his fault.
There is some part of me that is happy I don’t have to watch this Xavier team play meaningful basketball again. Back in those halcyon days when this team thumped Ohio State and beat UConn, and yes, that was this team, I was excited to watch them play. The team that has fallen apart throughout February has sucked the joy out of college basketball. That’s a difficult thing to do.
Tonight was Xavier’s piece de resistance. The Musketeers cannot be faulted for their effort. God bless them, they tried. They can’t be faulted for ball security, because it was brilliant. The Musketeers ran offense, the got wide open shots (so many wide open shots), they defensive rebounded, and they, at least until late in the game, got just enough stops. What they didn’t do was finish a game that was there for the finishing. With their NCAA tournament fate in their own hands, Xavier instead took those hands and wrapped them firmly around their own throat.
With 53 seconds to go, Xavier led by six. Their win probability was 91.7% at that point. It would take an epic collapse, and that's the real epic, not epic how the kids use it, to lose from that position. What Xavier did defied belief and, at the very end, defied logic. Andy Glockner helpfully summarized:
X was up 66-60 with 0:53 left, then:— (@AndyGlockner) March 10, 2022
1. Fouled on a make
2. Missed 2 FTs
3. Missed 2 more FTs off an OREB
4. Fouled to give Butler 2 pts
5. Committed an offensive foul on an inbounds
6. Missed an and-1 on the go-ahead layup
7. Intentionally fouled a 90% FTer up 2 with 5 sec left
The push off on Scruggs was probably a bad call, but it wasn't egregiously so. What was egregiously awful, season endingly awful, awful beyond comprehension, was Xavier's free throw shooting down the stretch. At one point the Musketeers were 7-12 from the line. Somehow, that was the high water mark. With their tournament lives on the line, X went 6-17 the rest of the way.
Grab a ball and walk out to your hoop right now. Soak your hands in ice if you want first. Move your hoop to the middle of the street and take your clothes off if you like pressure. Odds are you still do better than 6-17. Shoot them off handed. Shoot them through the tears. Shoot them while your significant other screams loudly about every single flaw you have. Shoot them on the move. Shoot them blindfolded, or with a broken hand, or from your knees, or facing the wrong way, or while someone beats you with a rubber hose. Get really extreme and shoot them while someone makes you watch a Xavier game. No matter what, you'll likely do better than 33%.
Xavier lost this game because they inexplicably stopped making free throws. They came into the game shooting a respectable 71%. Do that, heck, shoot 50%, and they win. Easily. Travis Steele mixed up the defenses, he neutralized Chuck Harris on defense, he finally coached like everyone wants him to, and his team flat out choked. Maybe he should be here next year, maybe not. This game wasn't on him though. (We'll get into 2-8 in the coming days, #FireSteele crowd, don't worry.)
I'll go to my grave saying Paul Scruggs is a great leader. The court side mics picked up his constant stream of cajoling and encouraging to his teammates. His knowledge and refusal to quit came through clearly. He was a man in his moment. His 15/3/6 kept the team in the game.
That's what made the end so painful. Putting down the family dog painful. Scruggs missed the fifth straight Xavier free throw and then grabbed the inexplicably dumpy Simas Lukosius from behind with four seconds to play. This was a smart move if Xavier was up three, a devastatingly awful one if X was up two. Xavier was up two. As the realization dawned on Scruggs face, so did the realization to everyone else that this testing season was effectively over. Xavier may play again, but it won't be, it shouldn't be, in the NCAA tournament.