CINCINNATI - The phrase "team of destiny" has been thrown out a lot in sports in recently. The phrase is used to define teams that don't necessarily have the best talent, but somehow pull off the big wins that are needed to succeed. The teams that have the odds stacked against them, but find a way to make it work. The teams that play as if there was some predetermination that they're going to be the ones to win it all.
The 2012 San Francisco Giants (Coming back from down 2-0 in the NLDS and 3-1 in the NLCS).
The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals (Down to the last out in the World Series TWICE).
The 2004 Boston Red Sox (Down 3-0 on the ALCS).
The New York Giants in both of their recent Super Bowl wins ("The catches", by David Tyree and Jake Ballard).
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens (Miraculous down-field plays in multiple playoff games).
A phrase that I'm making up as the opposite of the team of destiny, and is very appropriate for this year's Xavier Musketeers, is the team of damnation: A team that seemingly has good enough talent to succeed, but doesn't.
It started in the offseason when Mark Lyons decided to transfer to Arizona. Xavier faithful saw it coming, and it was bittersweet that the top playmaker (but biggest distraction) was leaving. Lyons is now a comfortable resident of the Top 25 with his Wildcats.
Then it continued with Dez Wells' "sexual assault" accusations that got him expelled at XU. He left for a Maryland team that has a comfortable seat in the NCAA Tourney.
But there was still plenty of talent left behind. A smart and agile Dee Davis. A 3-point expert in Brad Redford. An emerging low-post superstar in Travis Taylor. An all-around threat potential in Jeff Robinson. A banger, but a shooter in Isaiah Philmore. An incredible playmaker in Semaj Christon. An all-around player with size in Justin Martin.
After Game 1, in which Xavier scored 115 points, things were looking up, and the roster losses were forgotten.
But as the season slowly rolled on, it became more and more evident that this was not a team that was destined for greatness.
Christon cramped up early and often at the beginning of the year, essentially taking him out of close games late in the second half. Martin suffered a concussion. Davis hurt his wrist. The chemistry started to fall apart.
Then came the comebacks that XU couldn't stop. The 9-point drop against UMass. The 14-point comeback by Wofford. The 17-point rally by VCU.
And then came the games that Xavier seemed to be in, but never got the edge. The overtime loss to Vanderbilt. The back-and-forth Richmond loss. The futile offensive effort against Tennessee. The elusive second Butler game.
All in all, the Musketeers are about 20 points away from an NCAA Tournament birth. Just 20 more points across the whole season.
There were times when Xavier looked like a top 10 team, seemingly capable of those extra 20 points. Their domination of Butler the first game. Beating Temple and La Salle like they were bottom of the A-10 opponents. Taking down Memphis and St. Louis late in the season gave Musketeer fans some hope, but it all came down to and culminated at the A-10 Tournament.
In a back-and-forth game against St. Joe's in the first round of the tournament, it was obvious early on that it was a game that would be decided in the final moments.
Sure enough, 54-53 with 2:04 to go, Xavier picks up a crucial steal and subsequent foul. A shaky free throw team all year, XU's Martin made them both to put the Muskies up 55-54. A foul on the other side of the court gave St. Joe's the opportunity to make up the lost points with the clock stopped. Their own Carl Jones sank them with no problem.
Christon then took the initiative to drive the lane as he so often does late in games, and despite an initial miss, he earned a foul. A 67 percent free throw shooter on the season, Christon was not a sure thing to hit his shots from the charity stripe, but came up clutch and made both with 1:07 left. 57-56 Xavier.
And the Muskies forced a turnover on the Hawks' next possession, and had a chance to redeem themselves from a slow game and continue their quest to reach their potential.
But of all things, a shot clock violation on the ensuing possession gave the ball back to St. Joe's, down one point with just under 14 seconds left.
And with mere moments until XU's hopes of an NCAA Tournament birth would continue, Langston Galloway drove the lane and drew a foul on Semaj Christon with 1.4 seconds remaining. Galloway hit both free throws. Despite the feeling of defeat, everyone has seen the video of Christian Laetner's shot when Duke took down UK in '92, and everyone knows anything is possible in college hoops.
Xavier drew up an even more impressive play that Grant Hill himself couldn't have executed off the inbound: Throw a lob off the opposite backboard, catch and shoot upon grabbing the rebound.
The start of the play worked to perfection. Justin Martin nailed the target on the bottom left corner of the backboard (can you say practice?). There waited Isaiah Philmore, with not a Hawk around him after they had over-pursued the throw underneath the basket. He caught the ricochet, took one dribble closer to the basket, puts up a mostly uncontested shot up that he has made through the contact of two defenders multiple times before and........
(Gif courtesy SB Nation)
It just wasn't meant to be this year, Xavier. They were a damned team from the start.
XU will still have a shot to be invited to the NIT Tournament, which will be announced over the weekend.