Xavier’s brilliant start came crashing to halt in a miasma of Covid, injuries, and missed shots
The first part of the season in review discussed Xavier entering this season with heightened expectations based on a good recruiting class, a strong returning nucleus, and a coach with more experience. While the Musketeers will never know how the 2019-20 season would have officially ended, it gave them reason to believe that this year would be better. You can read that article here.
In the second part we looked at Xavier’s 8-1 start and the hot shooting that inspired it. With Nate Johnson on fire, the Musketeers hit Christmas ranked and having dispatched Cincinnati and Oklahoma in back to games with a combination of toughness and cutthroat efficiency on offense. The first Covid break had hardly slowed the team as they came out of it with Adam Kunkel calling game. You can read about those halcyon days here.
Xavier’s first serious stumble came after Christmas. The Musketeers surrendered a 15-0 run to end the first half against Seton Hall and never looked like coming back. It had been a week since their last game and it showed. After Xavier’s first Covid break they were now 1-2 and had looked good once, mediocre once, and awful once. When the first NET rankings came out, the Musketeers were 46th.
But then things took a turn for the better. Xavier beat St. John’s reasonably comfortably behind 16 from Colby Jones and 11 from Jason Carter. That win was marred by Xavier’s first serious injury, Ben Stanley’s torn ACL. That deprived Xavier of interior depth and added to the strain on an already hobbled Carter. Still, the Musketeers were stockpiling wins. Next came Colby Jones’ emotional buzzer beater against Providence. After that game, Xavier was in the top 100 in three point shooting, top 50 in interior shooting, and sixth in the nation in assists per made field goal. They were, despite the breaks, 42nd in the nation offensively and looking genuinely good. That would last for one more game.
Xavier came back after another Covid break 20 days later and beat Butler. It was not a thing of beauty, but the Musketeers were at their high water mark. Immediately after that game, Xavier went on another Covid break. It was another 14 days before they would play again. In a 41 day stretch, the team was together a grand total of eight times. The cohesion and flow that had brought success early in the season were lost. It was at this point that the Musketeers season was derailed. Even the best of teams, and Xavier had looked like that at points, would struggle with never seeing each other.
First came a loss to UConn in which RJ Cole went off. Then it was St. John’s and Posh Alexander. The ship attempted to self-right with another win over Butler. In that game the offense was bad, but the defense was ferocious. The Bulldogs scored .80 points per possession as Xavier clamped down on everything. With lack of practice limiting the offensive fluidity, it looked like maybe Coach Steele had found a different way to get wins. Nate Johnson had his worst game of the season, shooting 2-10 in 36 minutes. That turned out to be far more troubling that just an off night.
That performance lowered Johnson’s three point percentage on the season to 45.2%. He was shooting the ball at an otherworldly clip for most of the year and, in doing so, providing Xavier with the floor spacer they had needed desperately for a couple of seasons. Johnson’s impact was difficult to overstate. Xavier won all but one game in which he made three or more threes and all but three in which he at least attempted five. (That second number is weighed down by his 2-17 slump as his leg gave out).
But now Nate Johnson was hurt. It wasn’t apparent at the time, but he would not return. Xavier, simply put, had no one else who could do what he did with the ball on offense. Kyky Tandy was mired in a long stretch in which he simply wasn’t playing. His time seemed limited first by his defense, then by his decision making, then by some sort of falling out with Coach Steele that would lead to Tandy entering the transfer portal this offseason before apparently patching things up and returning to Xavier.
That left Xavier with four regular season games to save the season. They had won four and lost three since Christmas, but the momentum was well and truly gone. The Musketeers had missed 41 days, suffered two serious injuries, lost Jason Carter for all practice to another injury, lost players to Covid breaks, and seen their rotation disintegrate. With March on the horizon, Xavier was in trouble.