This summer, Last Word on Basketball aims to portray college basketball teams and their journey through a season during a pandemic. Our previous issue took a look at Morehead State from the OVC. You can also check previous rates starting with Vermont. The next program in our series is Xavier Basketball. Travis Steele just finished his third season at the helm of the Musketeers.
Steele has taken on Xavier and knows the program very well. He had served as an assistant coach under the current Louisville boss Chris Mack for nine years. When Mack moved for this position, Steele was selected as his predecessor. He led the Musketeers to the NIT in its first season, while COVID ended its second. In 2020-21, Xavier’s season was accentuated by three COVID breaks before ending at 13: 8 and sitting right outside the NCAA tournament bubble. I had the opportunity to speak to Steele about how, despite all their setbacks, the Musketeers never gave up their fight in the Big East.
The story of the Xavier basketball program 2020-21
As the off-season went, every college basketball program was on the same boat. It didn’t matter whether you played in a low major or a high major league. The summer training and a typical ramp-up before the season were off the table with COVID.
“There was no lifting, no skill development, no,” hey, we’re going to learn our system offensively and defensively, “said Steele. “None of that stuff existed. It was really unique and strange. “
Without being able to see their boys over the summer, Steele and his staff tried other ways to build camaraderie.
“We used a lot of zoom … to get to know each other and get some team chemistry,” he said. “Even so, you cannot replace the connections you make personally. We tried the technology as best we could. “
Xavier, like many other teams, had to revise their conference-free schedule. Steele realized earlier than most that he had to think differently when planning. The Musketeers were originally supposed to play at the Orlando Invitational over Thanksgiving. The event was supposed to include the state of Michigan and eventual national runner-up Gonzaga. He withdrew his team, however, preferring to keep control of the environment they would play in, and instead created an MTE at Xavier.
“I felt like with the test protocols, I knew there were going to be some big problems,” he said. “I knew the thing was going to fall apart. So I thought, guess what, we’re going to control the controllable. Let’s do as many games in as short a time as possible. “
Xavier’s MTE brought Toledo, Bradley, and Oakland to the Cintas Center. The musketeers swept their event and started 7-0 in the overall standings. 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 this point,” said Steele. “So we didn’t have to close our team and I thought that would give us some success. We had a lot of new pieces, but I felt like we were in for a really good lead Paul Scruggs. I liked our team. “
However, after the Blowout victory over the Sooners, they had their first positive test. Xavier was on the first break of the season and came right at the start of the Big East game. It was a frustrating circumstance, but Steele knew that given the state of the pandemic, it was a matter of pausing, not when.
“I felt like a ticking time bomb,” said Coach. “You talk to other college coaches and a lot of those teams already had all of them on their team. We had no one at that time. “
Still, Steele felt that they were following the protocols well and trying to limit the spread to protect everyone involved in the program.
“Our doctors, trainers, and administrators have done a great job protecting our student athletes,” he said. “Once again give our protocols a lot of appreciation and praise.”
The hope was that her first hiatus would be her only hiatus, but that optimism would soon be lost in mid-January.
A month-long quarantine
Returning from his first break just before Christmas, Xavier Basketball started his Big East schedule 3-2. The Musketeers had briefly appeared in the top 25 before their hard-fought game against Creighton on December 13th on December 23rd the next pause came. This began an almost one-month quarantine, which was only interrupted by a game against Butler on January 30th.
“It was hard,” said Steele. “We played at Butler and the next day we will be closed again. We were in quarantine 28 out of 30 days, which is amazing. [Yet], we hardly had anyone on our team who had it. They’d get a guy and we’d all be shut down for contact tracing. It’s almost as if we were going to die by paper cutting. “
Steele and his staff tried their best to help their team be engaged, refreshed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. The mental aspect was particularly important as Steele felt the season was by far the toughest.
“We came out of quarantine and have two days of training,” he said. “[Then] We go to butler and hit them pretty well and get thrown right back in the next day. That in a row was really difficult for our boys. “
Shocking the system
Xavier Basketball did his best to stay ready to play, but Steele could see they were starting to fall behind, especially with the rest of the Big East largely unpaused at this point.
“I felt like our boys were really out of shape, even with Butler,” he remarked. “It’s more about surviving and figuring out how to keep the boys healthy and get the boys in the best possible shape to play games. Your first thought is that you have to cheer up your boys a bit because they haven’t done anything in two weeks. “
In addition to the conditioning aspect, Steele was trying to figure out how to make fixtures based on what was available to them.
“You also need to find out and simplify your system offensively and defensively,” he said. “We couldn’t … basically train for a month, in the middle of the season. We probably had a third of the offensive we would normally have. “
The Musketeers were still coming out of that final hiatus 11-2 and hoping for the NCAA tournament.
A story from two seasons
Xavier Basketball has dropped out of his first game after an extended break at Connecticut 80-72. The Musketeers would only go 2-5 to finish the rest of their regular season schedule. They scored a win against an eleventh-placed Creighton team in their second match-up of the season. However, a team with so much potential suddenly fell on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament predictions.
“I felt sorry for our boys,” said Steele, “because I felt like an NCAA tournament team last year. In a normal year we are a tournament team. Unfortunately … you have to play the hand that is dealt to you, don’t you? “
Xavier sat in the metrics the committee uses to rate the teams going into the Big East, around the top 50 and bottom 60. One run was required to stand a chance of an offer. Those hopes were all but gone when the Musketeers fell against 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.
“You have worked really hard and you know what the expectations are here at Xavier,” he said, “and so do I. I think frustrated is probably the right word because they knew we had a really good team, and so did I. “
Despite last season’s disappointment, Steele decides to be optimistic.
“Things happen for a reason, and the NCAA gave the guys a chance to come back and take advantage of this COVID year,” Steele said. “We could do Scruggs and Nate Johnson back, which is huge for us when we go forward. “
Thinking about Xavier basketball
Steele’s optimism has a lot to do with the types of people he knows he has on his program. Despite everything, he knew they were doing their best to compete at the highest possible level.
“I thought our boys tried hard, even during the times when things weren’t going well towards the end of the year,” he said. “It wasn’t because of bad efforts 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 boys tried to stay on course, but I tell our players all the time, this is life. Basketball teaches us all lessons about life. In this world you have to be resilient and we have great young men on our program and I am proud of our boys for all the sacrifices they have made over the past season. “
Plus, Steele knows he has a group ready to work straight back towards a Big East title and NCAA tournament spot.
“[It] didn’t go that way at the end of the season, ”said Steele. “But I know that. That will make us even hungrier for the coming season. “
The Xavier program is a proud program with a long history of basketball. Expect the Musketeers to be back at the helm of the Big East again in 2021-22, battling for a spot in March Madness.
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