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Team 100 and the joy of basketball

It’s amazing what five games can do.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Final-Xavier vs Texas A&M Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

This was not the easiest of seasons to be a Xavier basketball fan. The incredible start to the season, an 11-1 start in which Xavier beat Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Marquette, and Virginia Tech, all tournament or should have been tournament teams wen by the boards in brutal late season stretch in which Xavier lost 10 of 14. Even just the raw numbers of 4-10 don’t effectively capture how frustrating this team had become to watch. Early in the slide wins over Creighton and Butler looked like a team refinding its feet. A huge win over UConn seemed like a chance to recalibrate and get rolling.

Neither of those things were true. Travis Steele undoubtedly did everything in his power to arrest the slide, but nothing worked. The team regressed. Players were obviously frustrated. I wrote that I had become Yossarian, tied to hoping for the success of a thing that I very did much not like. Intense love of something can quickly become anger when that thing doesn’t even act like it wants to return that affection. When the boos (absurdly) rained down at Cintas it seemed that the team had sown the wind and was reaping the whirlwind. The nadir came either in a horrific loss to Butler at MSG or an apathetic performance against Cleveland State at home in the NIT.

Sometime during that game against CSU Joel, encamped next to Andy Mac and I high in the press bunker, opined that we could be watching the end and, even worse, that it was hard to feel bad about that. Less than 18 hours later, things changed. Travis Steele was gone, Jonas Hayes was in, and Xavier was in uncharted water. An NIT run? Still hard to get excited about. The NCAA tournament was starting the next day though, and that’s always worth excitement.

Then came Sunday and a game against Florida. Maybe it was when Paul Scruggs went down that things fully changed. Scruggs had struggled in his super senior season, but the Cintas crowd was fully behind him when he came off. Far more importantly, the team looked engaged. All fans want is to believe that the thing they love cares. Cares about them, cares about the result, just cares. Of course the team always cares far more than the fans, but they want to see that. Xavier, for the first time in quite some time, looked like they cared.

The Musketeers didn’t so much tear into the Gators as slowly pull away. When Scruggs returned, his season obviously over, the team, coaches, and a referee walked over to hug him and wish him well. He immediately took a seat and started cheering.

The season that had lacked a focal point after missing the tournament now had one. The team rallied around their fallen leader, the fans rallied around the team. Adam Kunkel started tearing into defenses with a vicious glee that hadn’t always been allowed off the leash. Zach Freemantle suddenly became the player he should have been all year. Jonas Hayes was a frenetic mix of folksy food analogies and chop and change offense and defense. Suddenly, improbably, the team was fun again.

We’ve broken down each game already. You watched them. That Xavier Nation got behind a team playing in what is inarguably a consolation tournament is both a testament to the fanbase and to the team. The Musketeers looked like they were having fun again. That, at least for one jaded journalist/dad/fan, was all it took. Basketball is supposed to be fun. It is, at its best, a freestyle act conducted for 40 minutes over 94 feet. It’s all running and intricate movement, finesse meshed with gross motor skills to see who can be the most precise and the most ruthless until it’s done.

That joy came back for Xavier on March 20th. There was no real pressure, no real stakes. It was basketball for the sake of basketball. By the time the stakes were back, so was Xavier’s swagger and joy. A roaring St. Bonaventure crowd led by the cheerleaders in ESPNs booth were no match for Xavier’s first punch. They never came back close. Texas A&M fought valiantly but couldn’t match the resilience now built into a Xavier team determined to overcome everything in their path.

And, for Xavier fans, that resilience translated. Whether it was in the MSG, in a bar, with friends, or alone listening and watching in a car, a game that no one had circled at the start of the year became very important. More than that, it became fun. The Musketeers are NIT champions. Champions. Champions for the first time since 1958. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, Xavier has ended the season on a win. Basketball is fun. Basketball is the best. I can’t wait for the next game.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Final-Xavier vs Texas A&M
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports