Finding a scapegoat in a roller coaster season for Xavier

CINCINNATI - If you've been watching the Xavier Musketeers men's basketball team this season with any regularity, you're probably feeling a bit queasy.

At 16-12, this year's XU squad has shown brilliance and futility, all in a span of as little as five minutes.

Huge leads turned to narrow losses ( VCU, Wofford, UMass); close games that disappear in the final minutes ( Richmond, Vanderbilt, Tennessee); promising comebacks that fall short ( Charlotte, St. Joe's, Pacific, Wake Forest).

Bipolar to the aforementioned performances, thrilling domination of "better" teams ( Butler, Memphis, La Salle); solid team defense willing them to victory ( Rhode Island, Temple, Purdue, Robert Morris, Kent State); excellent efficiency on the offensive floor to leave teams in the dust ( Farleigh Dickinson, Fordham, George Washington).

Only two times this year has Xavier been without a chance to win ( Cincinnati, at Dayton), but with so much promise and only some production, what's to blame?

It's tough to find a true scapegoat for this team's roller coaster of a year, but in a candid conversation with 9 On Your Side sports anchor Scott Kyser, we came to the conclusion it has to be a lack of senior leadership.

In the past 12 years of Xavier basketball, they've only missed the tournament once (2004-05), and in that season, their only senior leadership was in the form of Keith Jackson, who wasn't a full-time player to begin with.

Think of all the other strong leaders the Musketeers have produced in that time: David West, Lionel Chalmers, Brian Thornton, Justin Doellman, Stanley Burrell, Josh Duncan, Drew Lavender, Derrick Brown, BJ Raymond, Jason Love, Dante Jackson, Tu Holloway just to name a few.

This year's seniors, Jeff Robinson, Travis Taylor and Brad Redford, are talented players in their own right, but not verbal leaders.

Each player is skilled in their own way: Redford a 3-point specialist, Taylor a rebounder with finesse around the rim, and Robinson with a touch of range and ferocity; but Redford lacks the all-around game, and the other two aren't consistent enough to lead without words.

As for the rest of the team, Dee Davis is the only resemblance of any sort of active general on the court, and he's only a sophomore. Semaj Christon is certainly the leading playmaker, but shows his age through his frustration and often less-than-thought-out decision making.

And no one else even comes close. This hurts the team in two ways: 1. There's no one to pick the team up when they're down (with words or action) and 2. There's no one to turn to when the team has needs.

When this year's squad plays well as a team, it's a thing of beauty. But when the Musketeers need a 3-point shot, a dribble-drive that leads to points or a defensive play made to put a team away late in the game or to break a scoring slump, there's no one who can reliably make it happen. Redford has to be freed on a screen for his shot and Christon is too inefficient. Robinson isn't consistent and Taylor isn't strong enough. Davis hasn't learned to use his body yet and Isaiah Philmore hasn't peaked.

When the Musketeers needed this kind of leadership in the past, the previously mentioned senior leaders of the last decade all come to mind.

All of the above has led to an up-and-down viewing experience for Xavier fans.

Expectation is everything in sports: When you expect to be great, anything less than that is failure. When you expect to perform poorly, anything more than that is an ecstatic, and welcome, surprise, and those expectations continue building in one direction or the other game-to-game.

The Musketeers have trained and spoiled their fans with 11 tournament appearances in 12 years. That spoiled mindset of expected success makes it difficult to understand how to watch this year's team.

Here has been the frenetic mindset of XU fans as the season has progressed:

Pre-season: Bitter at the loss of Dez Wells, indifferent of the departure of Mark Lyons, but that makes it a re-building year. We'll be happy with whatever this season holds.

Games 1-7 (Team record of 6-1): This team is actually coming together nicely. They could go places like the last 10 years.

Games 8-13 (Record of 1-5): What happened? They barely beat Kent State! Things were so promising. Guess they aren't going anywhere.

Games 14-17 (Record of 4-0): There they are, back to playing well, and in conference play too! They'll be alright in March.

Games 18-21 (Record of 1-3): Why can't they put it together now? They shouldn't have lost to any of those three teams. Looks like no tourney this year. Oh well, at least they beat Dayton at home again. Jimmy Carter!

Games 22-25 (Record of 3-1): Looking good again, and still with the record to possibly make the tourney if they win these next few big games. Keep it up!

Game 26 (0-1): Lost that big game, this season's over. Better buy tickets for the NIT.

Game 27 (1-0): They won that big game? Alright! They might have a chance yet!

Game 28 (0-1): %&$^$%*!!! They blew another huge lead! Which team is going to show up!?

Game 29 (1-): Didn't see that one coming! Go X! Maybe there's a way after all...

The bright side in riding this Diamondback-like season of college basketball? Xavier still has a chance to get in to the NCAA Tournament.

After defeating No. 16 Saint Louis Wednesday night, Xavier heads to Butler Saturday to finish their regular season, and they've already proven they can beat them. If they can win their regular season finale, and at least pick up a couple of wins in the A-10 tourney, they bolster their argument for a low, pity seed based on name recognition. After all, it happens to Kentucky and Duke when they have off years.

And if that plan fails, there's always winning the entire A-10 Tournament. The four-day Brooklyn-based tourney is full of teams XU is more than capable of handing a defeat. If they can run the gauntlet, Xavier fans will be back on the top of that roller coaster.

But now time for a reality check: When you're on the top of a roller coaster, things are all downhill from there.

This advice is given to coaster riders and it is perfectly applicable for XU faithful this season: Don't hold your breath.

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