Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease know all too well what it means to be senior basketball players at Xavier University. For three seasons they saw older players — the likes of Jason Love, B.J. Raymond and Jamel McLean — lead the program to deep runs in the NCAA tournament. It would be Holloway and Frease’s turn this season.
Their senior season has been anything but smooth; Frease was suspended indefinitely at the start of pre-season practice, while the now-infamous brawl near the end of the annual Crosstown Shootout against Cincinnati and Holloway’s postgame comments have yet to completely fade away.
Throw in 11 losses in the regular season — the most since going 17-12 in 2004-05 — and this March had all the makings of a nightmare on Victory Parkway.
Two wins in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament and a berth in the tournament final, however, gave the Musketeers the chance to continue their program’s NCAA tournament legacy, and no one is more pleased and relieved than Holloway and Frease.
The Musketeers (21-12) received a No. 10 seed and will face No. 7 Notre Dame (22-11) in a second-round game in Greensboro, N.C., Friday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:45 p.m. and the winner will advance to a matchup against either No. 2 Duke or No. 15 Lehigh.
Xavier hasn’t been seeded this low since 2006 when it was No. 14 after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament. The last time the Musketeers received a lower seed as an at-large team was in 2001 when they were seeded 11th in the Midwest Region. Their opponent that year: Notre Dame. The Irish won that game, 83-71.
None of that matters.
“Personally and as a team there has been a lot more adversity to overcome,” Frease says. “In past years we’ve had things like injuries and things like that which every team has to deal with, but I think there were different things this year that we had to deal with above and beyond what you would normally have to deal with in a season. Coming down the stretch this season we’ve been able to put ourselves in the position to make the tournament, and we feel fortunate for that and we’re moving forward from here.”
Xavier is making its seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. It is one of just 12 Division I programs in the country that can make that claim. The Musketeers have reached the regional tournament four times since 2004, including a pair of regional final appearances.
Until beating Dayton 70-69 in the A10 quarterfinals and Saint Louis 71-64 in the semifinals before losing to St. Bonaventure in the championship game, Xavier’s streak was in jeopardy.
That weighed on Holloway. A pre-season All-American selection and national Player of the Year candidate, Holloway and his teammates won their first eight games, including a 76-53 drubbing of UC. What should have been a signature moment for the Musketeers because of their dominance on the court instead became national news for how the teams fought before the final whistle blew. Frease was the victim of a blindside punch by UC’s Yancy Gates and was kicked by Cheikh Mbodj.
Holloway was the victim of his own comments. He didn’t back down from the actions on the court, including a lot of smack talk, that helped instigate the melee, and he received much criticism in the aftermath. He served a one-game suspension for his part in the brawl.
He said conversations with Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and former Duke guard Jay Williams, now a college basketball analyst at ESPN, as well as support from family, teammates and the Xavier community have helped him get through the experience.
Before playing Saint Louis, a team that had beaten Xavier twice in the regular season, in the A10 tournament, Holloway had a talk with head coach Chris Mack.
“He talked to me about guys who didn’t finish well,” Holloway says. “No matter what I did my first three years I felt like everyone would remember me for not being able to lead my team to the NCAA tournament, so it was tough just thinking about it every game after losses or bad practices.
“It started to eat at me a little but we overcame all of that and we’ve got some momentum after playing well in the Atlantic 10 tournament— not winning it, but we won two big games and now we’re getting ready for the NCAA tournament.”
XAVIER advanced to the Sweet 16 to play Baylor at 7:15 p.m. Friday, March 23 in Atlanta.