A lot of things can change in life in 365 days. It can be good, it can be bad, it can be some of both, but a year is a long time. In sports, a year can contain even more change. Entire landscapes and programs can change. For example, you need look no farther than your very own Xavier Musketeers.
On this date last year Xavier had just dropped four of five. The season that had held such promise when the Musketeers went on a 29-2 run to blast Creighton out of their own gym just two scant weeks ago had nosedived. X had lost 14 slots in the KenPom to drop to 38th. Their NET, once in the teens, was still a very respectable 25th, but it was trending, rapidly in the wrong direction. X had just lost to UConn by 11 in a game at Gampel that was over at halftime.
Our writing from that time is bleak. “A Twitter follower compared it to being on the Titanic as it went down. That may be apt, but assumes that the victims of that tragedy at least thrashed around a bit. Xavier slipped beneath the waves with barely a whimper. As Gampel Pavilion roared, the Musketeers seemed nihilistically resigned to their fate... Steele’s rotation of Kunkel and Odom in the second half was odd at best, and his insistence on putting Paul Scruggs back in late didn’t help.”
The team wasn’t clicking and the coach couldn’t find the right switch to flip in order to get them back where they had been. Zach Freemantle was playing so poorly that he may actually be helping the team more this year. It didn’t get better.
“It’s up to Steele to deliver them. It’s not easy, but neither are a lot of jobs that don’t see nearly the same compensation. If the head man can’t step up and right the ship, the bubble beckons.” This ended predictably. Steele couldn’t right the ship. Xavier hit the bubble and then crashed right through it with a speed not seen since Daedalus watched his son hurtle toward the ocean. The entire article this quote was cribbed from is a cold analysis of the issues with Steele’s coaching. Seeing them in type is to remember how bad things had gotten.
Finally, there was Xavier’s resume. “Xavier has three tough games and then an absolute landmine to end the season. Beat Georgetown and win one of the others and a tournament bid (if not good feelings) is a sure thing. Only beat Georgetown and the Musketeers are entering the Big East tournament on the upper edge of the bubble. It’s going to be a fraught three weeks.” The Musketeers only beat Georgetown, but even hammering the Hoyas felt a lot more than a dead cat bounce than the start of a new dawn.
Flash forward back to now. Xavier is 22nd in the KenPom, they are 25th in the NET, but rock solid and not sliding. Bracket Matrix has them in on every single bracket and a four seed. The NCAA said that if the tournament started today, Xavier would be in a protected slot. Zach Freemantle is hurt (and please God, let him come back this year), but he has been a force of nature when playing.
And the coaching. Has there ever been such a drastic change from one head man to another? Travis Steele was a good man and will likely still have a long and successful career coaching college basketball. Sean Miller is a hall of famer in waiting and possesses a cold blooded streak that has passed on to the team. Xavier almost beat one of the best teams in the nation with only five guys and Miller came out after the game and said they had to win games like that.
Three days later the Five Musketeers, a hobbling but game Kyky Tandy, and a suddenly resurgent Cesare Edwards came out against DePaul and blasted the Blue Demons off the floor in front of a raucous Cintas Center. Watching that game, with Adam Kunkel electric, Jerome Hunter a snarling menace, Jack Nunge somehow graceful and tough at the same time, and Colby Jones and Souley Boum playing the game as if made of silk, it’s tempting to look ahead and wonder just what this team can do if Zach Freemantle can come back and offer even 20 minutes per game.
But it’s also worthwhile to look back. Sometimes success tastes better when it rinses away the bitterness of failure.