CINCINNATI – Most teams have slogans or motivational messages they can print on shirts or emboss on locker-room signs. Most often, they are just words, fodder for a coach to use during pre-game speeches.
That is how Xavier’s slogan for this season “Just Us” got started. The team captains came up with it over the summer, perhaps in anticipation of what was expected to be a transition season on Victory Parkway, with a first-year head coach in Travis Steele, an entirely new coaching staff, and a roster patched together with three graduate transfers.
Through good times and bad, regardless of the score or situation, the Musketeers break the huddle with “Just Us”.
“It didn’t really mean much to me in the beginning,” said Zach Hankins, of the team mantra. “I thought it was a cool thing, we’re focused on us. But, going through the ups and downs of the season, the six-game losing streak and this last streak here, we have to be focused on what we’re doing. The outside noise can’t mean anything to us, good or bad.”
The Musketeers closed the season with wins in six of their final seven games, including an impressive 81-68 win over St. John’s on Saturday at Cintas Center, playing without leading scorer Naji Marshall who is out with an ankle injury.
Had it not been for a five-point loss at Butler earlier in the week, Xavier would be sitting firmly in the NCAA Tournament conversation. The Musketeers (17-14, 9-9 Big East) now need a deep run in the Big East Conference Tournament next week to extend their streak of NCAA Tournament trips to six.
But at the beginning of February, Xavier wasn’t thought to be an NIT team, let alone a candidate for the Big Dance. Regardless of what transpires at Madison Square Garden beginning Thursday, the growth shown under Steele in his first year is an indication of a brighter future ahead.
“It shows the character of our guys in the locker room,” Steele said. “Stick with the process. There are going to be highs, there are going to be lows. You have to stay focused on getting better.”
“Just Us” came in handy during a six-game losing streak that threatened to derail the Musketeers’ season, and ultimately still might. Beginning with a loss to Villanova on Jan. 9, some pundits had the Musketeers losing the rest of their games. Fans began questioning Steele’s credentials as a head coach. The team seemed devoid of the leadership necessary to help get them back on track.
But over the past few weeks, Marshall who struggled to adapt over the season’s first few months without the support of Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura et al from last year, began to assert himself, averaging 20.9 points over seven games. Tyrique Jones emerged as the team’s emotional engine and even sophomore Elias Harden who had been relegated largely to a bench role, provided a spark.
Saturday’s win over the Red Storm epitomized the “Just Us” mentality.
Without Marshall, the Musketeers’ limited bench depth was stretched even thinner. Staying in the game against an athletic St. John’s team without getting into foul trouble seemed too tall an order. But, the grad transfer trio of Hankins, Welage and Castlin each scored in double figures and Paul Scruggs had 22.
“Some people counted us out, but we stuck together and obviously it paid off,” Welage said. “Through the highs and lows, we were able to withstand a losing streak and turn it into a winning streak. Now we’re hot at the right time.”
In an abbreviated ceremony prior to Saturday’s game, Xavier honored its only players who are certain not to return next season - Hankins, Welage and Castlin. While there could be come attrition among the younger players, the core of Jones, Quentin Goodin, Marshall, Scruggs, and Hardin will join the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the Big East giving the Musketeers a chance to jump right back into NCAA Tournament contention in Steele’s second year.
“They’re always coachable,” said Steele, of this year’s team. “Even when we were going through that six-game losing streak, I thought we were still having good practices. Even though we weren’t getting the results, I could see our team was getting better.”
A culture of unselfishness developed throughout the course of this season. Following the loss to Butler on Tuesday, Scruggs, only a sophomore, went to Steele’s office and asked what he needed to do to help the team win. Hardin made a similar over earlier in the season when he approached Steele about how to earn more playing time.
In addition to his team-leading scoring output on Saturday, Scruggs had four assists and six rebounds.
“He’s all about winning,” Steele said. “He made some terrific passes. He was in attack mode. We need that out of him. He should be one of the better players in this league. We believe in him, I know his teammates do too. We need to get that out of him every game.”
Pending results from late Saturday, Xavier will face either Creighton or Georgetown on Thursday in the Big East Tournament, teams they split with during the regular season.
Xavier which was a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament but lost in the second round, has missed the tournament only once in the past 13 years, and just six times in the past quarter century. The odds are long, but the Musketeers believe there is plenty of basketball yet to be played this season.
At one point this season, the Musketeers were 3-8 in the league. They finished 9-9 to earn an all-important first-round bye in the tournament.
“Proud of the resolve,” Steele said. “I told our guys, we’ve beaten everybody in our league except Marquette. I don’t think there’s a ceiling for our team. Now it’s go time. This is the time when Xavier has always made its mark.”