P.J. O’Keefe is a (now jaded) Xavier University graduate and former WCPO.com editor. He now works as director of digital media at WRTV in Indianapolis.
I'm officially jaded.
If you're a Duke fan, you believe it's possible to appear in a National Championship every year. If you're a UK fan, you expect to win it every few years. North Carolina is the same. Michigan State and Kansas, too - or at least the Final Four, right?
Other programs across the country ebb and flow with talent year in and year out that positions them not just to have a great regular season, not just to win conference tournaments, not just to be highly seeded in the NCAA Tournament, but that they WILL make a deep run.
For those fans, it's even more disappointing when they are upset by a lower seed because they truly believed they had a shot at winning it all. And for as much fun as it is to watch the tournament because of the possible upsets, in the end, the teams that deserve to win end up playing on the second and third weekends.
X Had a Shot, They Really Did
Winning the NCAA Tournament is the second-hardest thing to do in sports (World Cup is the hardest).
Up until last night, I believed the above was possible for XU. Once upon a time, Xavier was no different than Stephen F. Austin or a Middle Tennessee State. They were just happy to be there, played their hearts out and when they finally did get beat in the tourney, it was still celebrated as an accomplishment.
But over time, Xavier commanded more than that. Making the Tournament 12 out of 14 years. Five straight A-10 championships. Six of the last 11 Sweet Sixteens. Two Elite Eights in the span of four years. A move to a power conference.
Then there was this year. 12-0 start. 6-1 against the Top 25. Solid conference showing, ranked number five in all the land, including an impressive takedown of the No. 1 overall Villanova Wildcats (another one of those teams that expects to be in the Final Four every so often), and a No. 2 Tournament seed!
We Had the Whole Package
This Xavier team was special. They were what the program had been working toward the last 15 years. We got lucky with David West (but there wasn't much around him). Fortunate to have Jordan Crawford (but needed more fine tuning on the roster). The rest of the guys in between played their roles, making us a good team, but not with greatness.
This year, we had the big men who had grown throughout their careers to be top-line players (Farr and Reynolds), the guard play that was a mix of smart, but athletic and challenging (Davis and Sumner), the right defensive scheme and pieces to confuse and disrupt (Abell), a playmaker who could hit a big three (Macura), or grab the big rebound (Gates) off the bench when we needed, or get two points on demand by banging down low (O'Mara), plus the X-factor in Trevon Blueitt, who could find his shot most anywhere when we needed it. The passing was crisp, the team play was obvious and these guys were having fun.
This was the complete package. Depth. Experience. Talent. A never-before-assembled totality of basketball for Xavier with the right playbook, the right intangibles and the right IQ.
I even bought a flight to Texas, just in case...
Except it wasn't.
So Close So Many Times
I think about the years we were close. The Duke loss in '04. Should that team have made it to within three points of a Final Four stacking up against four future NBA talents? Not on paper, and as a result, it was just a joy to have made it that far.
2007, the first version of the body of work. The Greg Oden foul that wasn't a foul. We'll just never know with this group, because they were born out of '04, but never got the chance to see it through.
2008: This was the next version of that body of work, where it felt like we had the pieces we needed. Did this team deserve to make it to the Elite Eight? Absolutely, but they didn't belong there, as evidenced by the beating they took at the hand of future NBA All-Star Kevin Love. Most memories of that year were captured in the Sweet Sixteen round after BJ sunk one of his late-OT threes to seal it in the round prior, which again, was just a "happy to be there" moment. (Where is BJ Raymond these days anyhow?)
2009: Riding the coattails of '08 with Derrick Brown in his prime, and we were close, but ill-advised late in the Pittsburgh Sweet 16 game (BJ lost control of an inbound pass with under 50 seconds to play after the team had been up). Again, still happy to be there, but not quite expecting more.
2010: This was the most promising version of that body of work so far, and a team that caught national attention and a few trips to the AP Top 25, but with a hint of luck - Crawford fell into our lap (thanks Kelvin Sampson) and rode the experienced roster as far as fate would take them. This was the first year we thought "Could this be it? Could we make a Final Four or more?" Damn that Jacob Pullen and his awful beard (PS, I just Googled him and he's in the Croatian basketball league. Good for him, because nothing happens in Croatia). And so with what will go down as a top five game in Xavier's history, the loss was bittersweet, because we thought we had a chance.
And ever since, we've thought we had a chance.
2011 was a frustrating tourney loss, but a result of erratic guard play.
2012 was SO promising (Remember Andre Walker? lol), especially after Lehigh made it easy on us when they upset No. 2 Duke in Round 1, but damn that Baylor team was good (Several NBA draft picks).
2013 was a strike year, right?
2014 was the building block that got us back to this point, so while disappointing, we knew what to expect (#FirstFour)
2015 was the year we knew we weren't quite there, but got to where the ceiling was (Sean Miller sweat through his shirt then, too + again, several NBA picks). Still, there was promise.
So '16 was it, right?
Is It a Curse?
What is it? If this wasn't the year, then when?
Is it the stage? If 14 years of trips to the Dance and the Big East move aren't enough to shake that fear, I'm not sure we'll ever overcome that.
Is it the program? Great talent, but infrequently NBA-level talent. Sometimes that doesn't matter, but we've seemed to run into a whole lot of it over the years.
Is it a curse? Voodoo is real, after all.
I'm jaded because I don't know the answer. Just when it feels like we have the pieces to get to a Final Four, we don't. When we're in a position to win games and advance, we don't. When it's time to come up with all of the big shots, we don't.
Again, no discredit to the challenge. Winning this championship is the second-hardest thing to do in sports. But in a sport where the talent pool of excellence is just not that big, with programs like Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Virginia who have had similar success as Xavier in recent years despite no championship but get way more exposure because of their names - it does make you wonder: Will we ever get over the hump?
It's not like I'm writing them off - I'll still cheer as hard as any of you - but I think, for my sanity and the safety of portable objects in my home, I'll go into it jaded - With the attitude that "Sure, we'll make the tournament, but a Final Four isn't in the cards."
That way, we'll just enjoy every round and every game in isolation - and it will be a gift when we advance just like '04 and '08, rather than a burden of expectation.
Until next year, Muskies.