Pandemic Profiles: Xavier Basketball Faced a Tale of Two Seasons

Xavier basketball had a tale of two seasons due to their multiple COVID pauses
Spread the love

This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Morehead State from the OVC. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Vermont. The next program in our series is Xavier basketball. Travis Steele just finished up his third season leading the Musketeers.

Steele took over at Xavier, and he knows the program extremely well. He had served as an assistant coach under current Louisville head man Chris Mack for nine years. When Mack left for that position, Steele was chosen as his predecessor. He led the Musketeers to the NIT in his first season, with COVID ending his second one. In 2020-21, Xavier’s season was accentuated by three COVID pauses before they finished at 13-8, sitting just outside the NCAA Tournament bubble. I had the chance to talk to Steele about how the Musketeers never gave up their fight in the Big East despite all of their setbacks.

The Story of the 2020-21 Xavier Basketball Program

Creating Chemistry

With the way the off-season transpired, every college basketball program was in the same boat. It didn’t matter if you played in a low major or high major league. Summer training and a typical pre-season ramp-up were off the table with COVID around.

“There was no lifting, no skill development, no, “hey, we’re going to start learning our system offensively and defensively,”” Steele said. “None of that stuff existed. It was really unique and odd.”

Without the chance to see their guys over the summer, Steele and his staff tried to build camaraderie through other means.

“We used a lot of Zoom…to try and get to know each other and try to get a little bit of team chemistry,” he said. “Still, you can’t replace the connections that you make when you’re in person. We tried as best as we possibly could via technology.”

Xavier had to rework their non-conference schedule as many other teams did. Steele recognized earlier than most that he needed to think differently about scheduling. The Musketeers were originally going to play in the Orlando Invitational over Thanksgiving. The event was going to include Michigan State and eventual national runner-up Gonzaga. However, he pulled his team out, preferring to have control over the way environment they would play in, creating an MTE at Xavier instead.

“I felt like, with the testing protocols, I knew there were going to be some major issues,” he stated. “I knew that thing was going to fall apart. So, I was like, you know what, we’re going to control the controllables. Let’s get as many games in, in as short of a period of time as we possibly could.”

Starting Strong

Xavier’s MTE brought Toledo, Bradley, and Oakland to the Cintas Center. The Musketeers swept their event and started out 7-0 overall. That stretch included victories over crosstown rivals Cincinnati and an impressive 22-point win over Oklahoma.

“We didn’t have any positive tests on our team at that point,” Steele said. “So, we didn’t have to shut down our team, and I thought that allowed us to have some success. We had a lot of new pieces, but I felt like we had some really good leadership in Paul Scruggs. I liked our team.”

However, after the blowout victory over the Sooners, had their first positive test. Xavier was on their first pause of the season, coming right as Big East play was about to start. It was a frustrating circumstance, but Steele knew that, with the state of the pandemic, it was a matter of if, not when, for pausing.

“I felt like we were a ticking timebomb,” Coach stated. “You talk to other college coaches and a lot of these teams had already had everybody on their team have it. We had nobody at that point.”

Still, Steele felt like they were doing a great job of following protocols and trying to limit spread for the safety of everyone involved in the program.

“Our doctors, our trainer, and our administration did a great job of trying to keep our student-athletes safe,” he said. “Once again, give a lot of credit and kudos to our protocols.”

The hope was that their first pause would be their only pause, but that optimism was soon lost midway into January.

A Monthlong Quarantine

Xavier basketball returned from their first pause shortly before Christmas, starting their Big East schedule going 3-2. The Musketeers had briefly made an appearance in the Top 25 before dropping a hard-fought game against 13th-ranked Creighton on December 23. Sitting at 10-2 after beating Providence by one on January 10, Xavier was set to face off against Villanova when their next pause came. That began almost a month-long quarantine, only being broken up by one game against Butler on January 30.

“It was hard,” stated Steele. “We played at Butler, and then the next day we get shut down again. We were in quarantine for 28 out of 30 days, which is insane. [Yet], we barely had anybody on our team that had had it. You’d get one guy get it, and we’d all be shut down because of contact tracing. It’s almost like we were getting death by papercuts.”

Steele and his staff tried their best to help their team be engaged, refreshed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. The mental aspect was especially important, as Steele felt that stretch of the season was by far their hardest.

“We got out of quarantine and we have two days of practice,” he said. “[Then] we go to Butler and we beat them pretty good, and the next day we’re thrown right back in. That back-to-back one was really difficult for our guys.”

Shocking the System

Xavier basketball did the best they could to try and stay game-ready, but Steele could tell they were starting to fall behind, especially with the rest of the Big East largely not on pause at that point.

“I felt like our guys were really out of shape, even at Butler,” he remarked. “It’s more of trying to survive and trying to figure out how you can keep guys healthy and get guys in shape as best as we possibly could to play games. Your first thoughts are you have to get your guys wind a little bit because they haven’t been doing anything for two weeks.”

On top of the conditioning aspect, Steele was trying to figure out how to create game plans based on what they had available to them.

“You also have to figure out and simplify your system offensively and defensively,” he said. “We weren’t able to practice for…basically a month, in the middle of the season. We probably had a third of our offense in that we’d normally have.”

The Musketeers were still emerging from that final pause at 11-2 and NCAA Tournament hopes.

A Tale of Two Seasons

Xavier basketball dropped their first game off their extended pause to Connecticut 80-72. The Musketeers would go just 2-5 to finish out what was left of their regular-season schedule. They did earn a win over an 11th-ranked Creighton team in their second match-up of the season. However, a team that had so much potential was suddenly dropping fast to the wrong side of NCAA Tournament projections.

“I felt bad for our guys,” Steele said, “because I felt like we were an NCAA Tournament team last year. In a normal year, we’re a tournament team. Unfortunately…you’ve got to play the hand that you’re dealt, right?”

Xavier was sitting around the upper 50’s and low 60’s in the metrics the committee uses to evaluate teams heading into the Big East Tournament. A run was needed to have a shot at a bid. However, those hopes were all but gone when the Musketeers fell to Butler in their first game at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t the ending anyone wanted, but Steele knew his team had given it their all.

“They worked really hard, and they know what the expectations are here at Xavier,” he noted, “and I do as well. I think frustrated is probably the right word because they knew we had a really good team, and so did I.”

Even with the disappointment from last season, Steele chooses to be optimistic about it all.

“Things happen for a reason, and the NCAA gave guys the ability to come back and use that COVID year,” stated Steele. “We were able to get Scruggs and Nate Johnson back, which is huge for us going moving forward.”

Reflecting on Xavier Basketball

Steele’s optimism has a lot to do with the type of guys he knows he has in his program. Despite everything, he knew they did their best to try and compete at the highest level possible.

“I thought our guys gave great effort, even during those times when things weren’t going our way towards the end of the year,” he remarked. “It wasn’t due to bad effort or bad attitudes or anything like that.”

Steele also tried to use the challenges they faced this year as a life lesson for his group.

“You have to be resilient,” he told them.” You can’t control everything. Our guys tried to stay the course, but it’s like I tell our players all the time, that’s life. Basketball teaches us all lessons about life. You’ve got to be resilient in this world, and we’ve got great young men in our program, and I’m proud of our guys for all the sacrifices they made this past season.”

Furthermore, Steele knows he has a group that’s ready to get right back to working towards a Big East title and NCAA Tournament berth.

“[It] didn’t go our way at the very end of the season,” Steele said. “But, I know this. It’s going to make us even hungrier for this upcoming season.”

The Xavier program is a proud one with a great basketball tradition. Expect the Musketeers to be back towards the top of the Big East and competing for a spot in March Madness in 2021-22.

Main Photo

Embed from Getty Images