Xavier tore through the early part of the season and hit Christmas nationally ranked and looking very good.
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.
The best way to start each basketball season is with a win. While this seems rudimentary, it carried extra meaning this year. With a chance that the season wouldn’t go as planned and the NCAA insisting that any team that wanted to play in the tournament hit a minimum floor of games played, winning early and often took on extra import. Xavier started the season by pummeling Oakland at the Xavier Invitational. For a long time, it didn’t seem like they would look back.
It is a great shame that there were no fans at the Xavier Invitational back in those days before the vaccine was available to anyone smart enough to get it. It’s hard to imagine the noise that would have taken place as the Musketeers took the court and summarily dispatched Oakland, hit a game winning buzzer beater to take down Bradley, and knocked off a tough Toledo squad. Three days, three very different games, three wins exciting in their own right.
Xavier’s next game was also exciting, thought it’s hard to imagine it needed to be. Eastern Kentucky was 204th in the KenPom when they came to the Cintas and 174th at the end of the season. They were not a good team. Xavier fans must have thought that it was, perhaps, the Kentucky Wildcats their team was facing as the Musketeers never seemed to get into gear. EKU pushed the pace and Tre King scored his season high as the game went into a surely extraneous overtime period. Kyky Tandy was nails from the line and played 41 minutes in a game the Musketeers finally managed to win by scoring 99.
Xavier also beat Tennessee Tech in a game that even the people who played it don’t remember.
Then came the Crosstown Shootout. John Brannen had followed the Mick Cronin standard of scheduling no one before the Shootout by scheduling almost literally no one. The Bearcats were 1-0 coming into the game and 1-1 coming out of it. Adam Kunkel, CJ Wilcher, and Colby Jones all returned from either Covid or NCAA foolishness to log their first Xavier minutes. It was Paul Scruggs, playing his first senior season, who went for 20/5/5 and very definitively yelled about exactly who runs the city as the game ended. Xavier went 12-2 in killing time and the Bearcats had no answer. They never recovered all season.
As great as that game was it was eclipsed by the high water mark of Xavier’s season. Xavier trailed a top 15 Oklahoma team with 25 minutes to play before a 14-4 run sent them to the half up nine. The Sooners didn’t answer, though. Instead, Xavier began a three point barrage that put the game away. Nate Johnson was ferociously yelling best, going 7-9 from deep on his way to 25. Paul Scruggs scored 20. Zach Freemantle had 28. Xavier shot 59.4% as the game turned into a complete rout. X had looked good before this game, they now looked nigh unstoppable. The defense wasn’t great, but who needs that when you can score 1.43 points per possession.
Then came the inevitable. Xavier had their first Covid pause right as they were hitting stride. The momentum of the early season was halted by a pandemic that hadn’t yet been brought to any type of heel. While the Musketeers were off they couldn’t meet, practice, or play together. With the Big East coming up, that could be an issue.
Xavier’s first game out was against Marquette 13 days later. The Golden Eagles were supposed to be good and X was coming off a long layoff. The game was every bit of the battle it was hyped to be. The game hovered in the 25% of win probability that brackets dead even as neither team could pull away. The story of the game, really, was written in the last eight seconds. Adam Kunkel, playing in just his third game, literally called his shot as he released the game winning three. Xavier had powered through the rust and gone to 8-0. They would hit Christmas at 8-1 and looking like a Big East power. All of the preseason expectations were coming good.