Gone but Not Forgotten

Xavier won't play in the postseason this year, but the Musketeers will be back soon

Mar 20, 2013 at 8:43 am
click to enlarge Jeff Robinson
Jeff Robinson

It was late on Sunday night, and Xavier’s men’s basketball team was practicing. This wasn’t one of Chris Mack’s normal practices, which he runs with the discipline and intensity of a General Patton. (The players get treated like Germans or Americans, depending on their defensive rotations.) Instead, this one took place in the Cintas Center’s auxiliary gym, a loose series of workouts designed to keep the team in shape — they hadn’t done much since their Thursday loss in the Atlantic 10 tournament — and to keep them distracted while the NCAA and NIT brackets came out.

Everyone knew that, at 17-13, Xavier would not make its eighth straight March Madness. But the NIT seemed likely — until, just after 9 p.m., when the players learned they’d missed that, as well. No postseason, period? It might sound like a disaster by the Musketeers’ standards. Still, when you consider everything that went wrong this season — and everything that, already, is going right for next year — you’ll see that Xavier’s next great team may be closer than you think.

Let’s start with the autopsy: Earlier this month, Mack, who’s as honest as anyone on the local sports scene, admitted, “We’re sort of a split personality team.” The comment came after a week in which Xavier beat 19th-ranked Memphis — then lost at home to a mediocre UMass. 

Most fans would agree that Xavier’s personality problems existed all year. If you saw the Crosstown Classic (the name still sounds off, doesn’t it?), you saw the team’s season in miniature: a frantic first half, in which Xavier gutted out a 24-22 lead, then a second half where things fell apart. Final score: Bearcats 60, Musketeers 45.

But Xavier’s biggest problem that day wasn’t coaching or effort — it was depth. This year’s Musketeers lost three seniors — Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Andre Walker — and played with only eight scholarship players. Once UC deployed its merciless full-court press, it was no surprise when guards Semaj Christon and Dee Davis went down with nasty cramps. With no one to replace them, X never stood a chance.

There are two reasons for this radically short-handed roster. The first is that, in September, the NCAA sliced Xavier’s 14th-ranked recruiting class in half by declaring Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds ineligible. 

Next season, however, both Davis and Reynolds will return. Xavier will say goodbye to three more seniors, but Brad Redford, Jeff Robinson and Travis Taylor aren’t Tu, Kenny and Andre. Mack has called Christon “arguably one of the best freshmen Xavier’s ever seen,” and in 2013-14 he’ll count on a much-improved supporting cast. Davis is a Redford-ian bomber who provides back-court depth. And Reynolds might be Xavier’s next great power forward — “as explosive as he is imposing,” swooned ESPN.

Add in Matt Stainbrook, a Shrek-sized transfer, and Brandon Randolph, an jitterbug point guard, and you’re looking at one of the youngest, deepest teams Xavier’s had in a long time. The timing couldn’t be better since this week the university is expected to announce it will join the Catholic 7 as part of the new Big East. 

The Catholic 7 may sound like the bad guy in a Dan Brown novel, but really they’re just seven schools from the old Big East inviting Xavier, Butler, and Creighton to join them for a new, basketball-driven mega conference. 

If you’re an X fan, there are several reasons to be excited. First, UC hates it. (“The whole thing is tragic,” according to Mick Cronin. “All anybody cares about is money.”) Second, Xavier will enjoy a serious bump in prestige, strength of schedule and TV cash — from around $400,000 per year in the A-10 to $4 million per year in the Big East. Third, Xavier has already proven it can compete at this level, as recruits Davis and Reynolds both chose Xavier over multiple Big East programs. 

In the last decade, Xavier’s accomplished as much as a “mid-major” can. Now it’s going to see what it can do in prime time. 

Yet there’s one lingering problem — and that’s Xavier itself. The other reason for this year’s JV squad was that Dez Wells and Mark Lyons unexpectedly exited the program. The causes for both departures were messy and complicated, but both also fit into a larger trend. 

After last year’s Xavier-UC brawl, Musketeer message boards began buzzing about wealthy donors angry with the team’s “attitude.” During that period, I interviewed one top Xavier administrator who, by the end of our conversation, was raising his voice: “The reality is Mark Lyons talks too much,” this person said. “That’s what this is all about, in a lot of ways. … I can’t stand that, personally.” When Wells was expelled that summer, many understood it as yet another example of Xavier’s higher ups over-reaching and over-reacting when it came to the basketball team.

All of this gets at Xavier’s divided idea of itself, its creaky transition from the Skip Prosser paradigm — classy, plucky underdog — to the world of big-time college hoops. 

It’s a conflict the university must resolve. But perhaps the Big East can help here, as well. After all, in the 1980s a school like Georgetown found itself in a similar place to Xavier today: trying to blend its buttoned-down image, its dreams of a national profile and a successful basketball program known for swagger and intimidation — the so-called “Hoya Paranoia.” 

Georgetown made it work, and Xavier can, too. But the on-court part may be the easiest. ©