CINCINNATI — Approaching the middle of February with a losing record is new territory for Xavier University’s men’s basketball program, which hasn’t finished below .500 since 1996 and has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament only once in the past 13 seasons.
Travis Steele anticipated some challenges during his first year as head coach, with the Musketeers losing five of their top six scorers from last season, including Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Kerem Kanter, who accounted for more than half of the team’s points.
Chris Mack also departed for Louisville after nine seasons, leaving Steele and three first-year assistants to take over a program that has reached three Elite Eights since 2004 but now is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether this year.
“When you have a coaching change and you lose a senior class like we lost, we knew it was going to be an adjustment,” Steele said. “I knew there could be some rough patches. I want to see them get better, I want our staff to get better. I want to see growth and continue to learn with each other and grow together.”
So far, the growth has been painful, with only a few glimmers of hope.
On Wednesday night, the Musketeers held on for a 64-61 overtime win over Creighton to avoid a seventh straight loss, which would have been their longest losing streak since the 1981-82 season. Any win is a good win at this point.
“It feels good to get a win,” said sophomore forward Naji Marshall, who had a game-high 23 points. “We played with passion. We stepped up big time on the defensive side. We got a win; now let’s go get another one.”
While panic has persisted in Xavier Nation, those closest to the program paint a more positive picture.
For one thing, the season is not over yet, with six games remaining in the regular season before the Big East Tournament. Even if the Musketeers (12-13) do become the 17th team to miss the NCAA Tournament the season after being a No. 1 seed, the program appears to be on solid footing.
“I am incredibly confident in the direction we’re going,” said Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher. “Everybody’s frustrated by losing. But we still have a few chapters to write this season. I am impressed by the job Travis has done. He has kept the team together. He is executing on the plan he laid out.”
At times, the Musketeers can appear disjointed, a puzzle with quality pieces that just don’t seem to fit. Part of that is attrition from last season. A lack of depth at a few positions prompted Steele to grab three graduate transfers, but neither Kyle Castlin, Ryan Welage or Zach Hankins -- although he is leading the Big East in field goal percentage -- have helped stem the tide.
“Our personnel’s so different than it has been,” Steele said.
Without a go-to scorer and no Bluiett or Macura to rely on during critical moments, the Musketeers have a tendency to step out of their comfort zones when the game is on the line.
“Our guys have good intent,” said Steele. “They want to win. I think sometimes they say, ‘Hey, I’m going to put the team on my back and I’m going to get us one.’ Just being able to execute our way out of trouble, not just play our way out of trouble.”
It’s not that Xavier hasn’t had opportunities to win games this season. The Musketeers had an 11-point second-half lead on 12th-ranked Marquette on Jan. 26 at Cintas Center and lost by five. They blew a 19-point advantage and lost to San Diego State in the Maui Classic. They led by eight points in the second half last week against DePaul, then lost by 12.
At crunch time, the Musketeers most often have wilted. It’s not for a lack of effort, said Steele, but rather a lack of execution.
“A lot of it is mental,” he said. “I could tell even in that last huddle (against DePaul), after I called a timeout after those turnovers, that our huddle was different. A lot of it is that having the confidence that you’re going to win. It’s so important.”
It took Steele abusing a white board during a timeout to rally the Musketeers from a 17-point deficit to beat Georgetown on Jan. 9. They beat Butler three days later, but then lost six straight games.
From an individual standpoint, you could argue Xavier has the talent to be a better team than it has been.
Junior point guard Quentin Goodin, who has battled injuries, is a three-year starter, and he and junior forward Tyrique Jones were part of an Elite Eight team in 2017.
Marshall and fellow sophomore guard Paul Scruggs are the team’s top two scorers through 25 games, but inconsistency and turnovers have plagued them. Scruggs had five turnovers on Wednesday and spent most of the second half on the bench.
“They have good intent,” Steele said of his players. “It’s not out of selfishness. But you have to make the right plays, or it results in a bad shot or a turnover. Trying to get our guys to slow down and not panic.”
Xavier’s schedule is unforgiving, especially so for a team in transition. The Musketeers have games remaining at Providence, Seton Hall and St. John’s. They have to face Villanova once more, a team they have defeated only once since joining the Big East six years ago.
“There’s no hiding in the Big East,” Steele said. “You can’t fake it at this level.”
Steele was Mack’s top recruiter for the past nine seasons. That’s where the program can’t afford to lose momentum. By all indications recruiting hasn’t suffered from Xavier’s recent slide with the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the Big East coming next year, led by dynamic Hopkinsville, Kentucky, guard Dekeyvan “KyKy” Tandy.
“It’s all about consistency in recruiting,” Christopher said. “We can’t have gaps in our pipeline.”
Four years ago, the Xavier pipeline produced one of the most heralded recruiting classes in school history with Bluiett, Macura, Sean O’Mara and Edmond Sumner helping them appear in four NCAA Tournaments and reach an Elite Eight.
Bluiett and Macura helped the Musketeers garner a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament and another shot at their first-ever Final Four appearance. That dream ended the first weekend with a loss to Florida State in Nashville.
Now, the Musketeers are retooling the roster, but time is running out for them to extend their streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament trips to six.
“They’re working hard to help change the results,” said Steele. “The fans don’t see it, but they would appreciate the effort our guys put in every single day. They want to win as bad as our fans do and as bad as all of us do as well. I believe in them.”