Take a step back and think back to Veteran’s Day of 2016, when Lehigh entered the Cintas Center for the first game of the 2016-2017 men’s basketball season. Expectations were unbounded – this was a team coming off one of their best years in program history. They were ranked in the top 10 to begin the year, and there was no reason to believe this group of guys couldn’t compete for a Final Four.
It was a shaky start to the campaign; you may have forgotten that Lehigh almost edged out a victory as the Musketeers only escaped by three. This may have been jitters, but it may also have been a slight glimpse into a crystal ball for the season. Five months later, through a different lens, we can now take a look back and look at this season as a whole.
There was the Tire Pros Invitational tournament championship in Orlando, where Xavier won their second consecutive early-season tournament. Then not too long after it was onto a trip to Waco, Texas, where an undefeated Xavier squad and an undefeated Baylor team squared off. The final score was not indicative of that entire game; Xavier led with less than 10 minutes to go. Nonetheless, the undefeated season was no more, and the Musketeers entered conference play with two blemishes on their record.
The Big East is one of the best conferences in the country, and there’s a reason that every game is a grind. On any given night, you have to be prepared for a rock fight – a heated battle against a team that knows your system through and through because you play each other twice a year every year.
On February 10th, Xavier was 8-3 in conference play, and was set to take on Villanova the following day. Students camped out in anticipation and spirits were high. Little did everyone know what would soon transpire. The Musketeers would lose, then they would lose again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Six times in a row, Xavier rolled the ball out and lost. Morale was low as the team took beat-down after beat-down, culminating in a double-digit loss on Senior Night against Marquette.
Houses, common rooms, and roommates were divided as students on both sides of the debate argued. Some jumped ship while many others tried heartily to convince the masses that there were still reasons to be positive, still reasons to see potential, and still reasons to believe that the season was not yet down the drain. It wasn’t over, as much as many people thought it very well could be.
Then came the Big East Tournament, where Trevon Bluiett led the way as Xavier took down Butler to reach the semifinals. He nearly led them into the finals before Creighton pulled off an incredible shot to send Xavier home. Yet, the spark had returned, and the Musketeer faithful knew that there was fire in the eyes of this team again, and a march through the tournament could be on the horizon.
Xavier was the last team announced on Selection Sunday. It didn’t matter they were an 11 seed. They were in, and they took care of business. They beat Maryland, and proceeded to dismantle Florida State in every facet of the game. Campus was electric, and students were smiling.
Then came the following Thursday, a rematch against Arizona from two years ago. Chris Mack vs. Sean Miller. Student vs. Teacher. The game had all of the storylines, and the Musketeers wrote their way into Xavier lore after a two point victory.
Campus was euphoric. Everybody was outside – yelling, hugging, playing music, and running around, yet they didn’t really know where to go. Everybody just wanted to celebrate together, and live in the moment of the Elite Eight. Many would agree that campus has not been that jubilant in quite a long time. It was an incredible scene.
This season may not have been what many Xavier fans hoped it would be. Needless to say, it was not what the team expected it to be. But in a sport where your program’s success is judged largely on your NCAA tournament success, by all counts, this year was a roaring triumph. It broke into the tournament as an 11 seed and steamrolled through the first weekend before earning a program-defining win in the Sweet 16.
Yes, Xavier came up 40 minutes short of the Final Four. Yes, Xavier now holds the title of winningest NCAA tournament team without a Final Four appearance. Yes, it seemed after the Arizona game like this would be the year the program would break through and accomplish that goal.
After the Gonzaga game, Coach Mack walked back out on the court to watch the Bulldogs celebrate their first Final Four appearance. When asked why he was watching, Mack responded, “I like to burn those memories into my mind…we’re going to get there.”
It will happen one day Xavier fans, this program is in too good of a spot for it not to happen. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the train is gathering momentum to get there very soon. And if there are ever dark spots in a season, let this year be a reminder to never give up, because you never know what might happen at the end. When fans around you are giving up, remember that feeling of joy after winning in the Sweet 16. When writers around the country are not giving Xavier a chance, don’t feed into it. Who knows, the team might just write their own script.