CINCINNATI — After starting the season strong at 10-1, reaching as high as No. 17 in the country, the Xavier Musketeers collapsed as the season wound down and missed the NCAA Tournament again. They have now missed the tourney every single year under 4th-year head coach Travis Steele.
Steele had been on the hot seat in the latter part of the season, with calls for his job ringing out on social media and even in Cintas (more on that later). It comes after a third-straight promising season collapsed into a dud through Big East play, with each of the teams seemingly worse as the season went on.
The 2021-22 campaign was off to a good start after the Muskies took down the likes of tournament-bound Ohio State, hung with a tough (tournament-bound) Iowa State team with a flu-deprived starting lineup and took care of business against UC in the Crosstown Shootout. Things looked really good in the first two months of this season, and Cintas was LOUD.
The cracks started to show in the first matchup against DePaul in Chicago. A horrid first-half, which became a part of this team's identity, led to a scramble to beat one of the worst teams in the conference by only 1 point.
Marquette slipped away in Milwaukee (not unheard of to lose on the road there, but it was a team the Muskies had beaten weeks earlier) and the first Providence matchup at Cintas came down to a hero-ball-gone-wrong Paul Scruggs drive that could have won the game.
Xavier handled Creighton, snuck by Butler going 3/17 from 3-point range, but then it got weird. The Muskies didn't learn from the first half setbacks at DePaul that almost caused a defeat in the previous meeting, dropping one of the worst Quad 3 home court losses in recent memory (Quads 3+4 = worst teams in the NCAA).
Then despite performing better in almost every statistical category, Seton Hall survived a late flurry in Jersey to add another L to the column for the Muskies.
The team responded with a really impressive win over #21 UConn, and there was a collective sigh of relief. "We're fine," read the tweets. "The Big East is hard" said the pundits. "An at-large bid is all but a guarantee" said the analysts.
Nate Johnson hurt his knee late in the impressive win over the Huskies, which in retrospect put the nail in the Muskies' coffin.
The loss to St. John's at home next was not statistically worse than DePaul, but the 13-point final score deficit stung harder. UConn turned the tables on the team in Connecticut; not a bad loss, but a very different team showed up without Johnson on the floor. And while the Providence loss in triple overtime after a leaky ceiling was a promising performance, it was still unsatisfying to let it slip away (questionable officiating in that one didn't help either).
Then came Seton Hall - a three-game skid already threatening a high seed in both the Big East tournament and the overall NCAA Tournament. After half of fans at the Cintas Center had already headed for the exits, realizing the tailspin that was this fourth loss in a row, to a mediocre team, on our home court, by double digits, meant not just a loss of a high seed, but participation in March Madness altogether, a chant started:
"Fi-re Stee-le" Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. "Fi-re Stee-le" Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. "Fi-re Stee-le" Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.
The chant came primarily among the student section, which itself was also half-empty in the closing moments, but no one seemed to disagree. Quiet nods, muttered agreeance and emboldened anger followed in the concourse after the final buzzer.
The rest is history. Xavier beat a rock-bottom Georgetown to close the regular season, but then lost in still-puzzling fashion to Butler in round 1 of the Big East tournament despite having a 4-point lead with under a minute left.
The talent appears to be in place on the court: Some of the highest-rated recruits ever have come in the past few years (Scruggs, Dwon Odom and KyKy Tandy if you can believe it) and even more are on the way (4-star recruits Tyrell Ward, Kam Craft and Desmond Claude are on the way next year).
You would think that would be a credit to Steele and his ability to attract top talent, yet here we are: another collapse under Steele’s watch - and another missed NCAA Tourney, something that was an unfathomable just a few years ago when the program had been built into a 1 seed and a shot at a Final Four wasn't so far-fetched (Still don't know what happened against Florida State that year).
Each of the last three years, Steele's teams have started 12-2, with not a total cake walk of a non-conference schedule, only to struggle in conference play and come up short. COVID has a lot to do with this, but it affected every team out there, so there is no excuse that separates this team's failures vs. other successes.
2018-2019 - Started 9-5, ended 19-16; Missed the NCAA Tournament (lost in 2nd round of NIT)
2019-2020 - Started 12-2, ended 19-13; NCAA Tournament canceled due to COVID (Not likely they would have gotten in anyway).
2020-2021 - Started 12-2, ended 13-8 due to COVID-shortened season, Missed the NCAA Tournament.
2021-2022 - Started 12-2, ended 18-13 (8-11 in the conference), Missed the NCAA Tournament.
About the chant: A lot of people said “don’t do that” or “this is wrong” or “they need our support now more than ever”.
It’s important to remember that the players are young, developing men. So booing Zach Fremantle when he’s brought back on the court is a bit much, but booing the decision maker, the head coach, the grown man, the “professional” in this scenario, is not unwarranted if he's not meeting the expectations of the job, which at Xavier have grown tremendously over the last 40 years.
Xavier hasn’t even had to ponder dismissing a coach in over 40 years. Every single head coach with a 3-year tenure or more since 1979 has made at least one tournament appearance. Steele has 0.
Bob Staak got the Muskies back to the tournament for the first time in 20 years in the '80s. Pete Gillen made it a consistent thing, getting into the NCAA Tourney 7 times. Skip Prosser took the team into the A-10 and won two conference championships. Thad Matta got to the Elite Eight for the first time. Sean Miller went to an Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen back-to-back. Chris Mack led the team to a Number 1 seed on the back of joining the Big East.
Rationalizing what’s happened this year could be seen as a product of a weird lineup of players who don’t know their roles because of overlapping talent on the back of COVID super seniors staying an extra year and throwing off the cycle of talent development vs. talent implementation. Especially when Freemantle came back from injury seven games into the season - that threw a big wrench in who did what.
But the conclusion to that issue is that a good head coach would recognize that, take control of that, address that, and find a way to see a 10-1 start into at least the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tourney.
Steele will no doubt be on the hot seat as XU watches the NCAA Tournament from its dorm rooms in Norwood.