By: Tim Wilmes ~Sports Editor~
Last Tuesday’s loss at Dayton was a peculiar way to end the season for the Xavier Musketeers. The disappointing 74-59 loss to NC State in a First Four play-in game was hardly the way XU seniors would have hoped to end a stellar four-year career of Xavier basketball. Losing on the court of a heated rival lathered with poor shooting, turnovers and missed opportunities hung over the players’ heads on the bus ride back to Cincinnati.
Though the night seemingly couldn’t go any worse for Xavier Nation, there were positives to take away from the Musketeers’ postseason play that should be celebrated and offer hope for next year’s squad.
Anyone who watched Xavier’s matchup with the Wolfpack of NC State had to be incredibly impressed with junior center Matt Stainbrook’s awe-inspiring performance.
After being sidelined in the last two regular season games from a strained ligament in his left knee, Stainbrook was a rock for his teammates in the Big East Tournament and especially in the NCAA Tournament play-in game.
Providing a true testament of will power, the XU center battled through his injury to not only propel his team into the tournament against Marquette but also keep the Musketeers competitive against the Wolfpack.
Even with this injury, Stainbrook finished the final game of the season with 19 points, nine rebounds and an inspiring play in which he elevated to dunk a rebound in midair. Still, the most impressive part of all was Stainbrook’s determination and commitment to his team, which has earned the love of Xavier fans throughout the year.
Stainbrook even put the team on his back in the postgame press conference, saying, “I’m proud of my teammates, and I’m disappointed for letting down the seniors … My motivation was definitely my teammates, my family and Xavier University. When it came down to it, I just wanted to reward the people who have supported me and supported the team throughout the year, and obviously we didn’t get that done. But next year, it’ll be fun.”
If that doesn’t indicate how next year will look for Stainbrook and the Musketeers, then I don’t know what will.
To continue the theme of senior leadership, Xavier’s seniors were certainly impressive in postseason play. Senior forward Isaiah Philmore averaged 14.67 points per game and 5.67 rebounds per game in the Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament including a career-high 23 points in Xavier’s loss to Creighton.
Senior forward Erik Stenger, while only playing seven minutes in both postseason tournaments, injected energy intoto XU and managed to haul in three rebounds in that short amount of time.
And of course, who can forget former walk-on senior guards Landon Amos and Tim Whelan, who have undergone years of mental and physical exertion for only a few minutes of glory?
All four seniors have one thing in common: they didn’t play a game for Xavier until their junior years. Their XU careers have been defined by hard work and they have provided meaningful roles to the team, a tradition that has always been a staple for Xavier basketball and will certainly continue to be in the years to come.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
This adage applies to the good and the bad of Xavier basketball this year. All of the little miscues we’ve seen throughout the year — turnovers, spotty free throw percentages, poor 3-point numbers and missed opportunities late in games — compounded into the Musketeers’ game against the Wolfpack.
However, Xavier fans have learned by now that the good is carried forward and negatives will eventually be turned into positives.
People seem to have forgotten that this was still a young and inexperienced Xavier team, and you can bet that next year when Stainbrook, forward Justin Martin and guard Dee Davis are all seniors and star guard Semaj Christon is a junior, they’ll be ready to lead a more experienced team to the NCAA Tournament.
And when young standouts like freshman forwards Jalen Reynolds and James Farr play on the road or in big tournament games next year, they’ll know how to push through adversity.
Expect year-old wounds to be healed next year: Xavier basketball has a tested tradition in this pedigree. After all, in four years Xavier went from losing to Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to beating the Golden Eagles in a conference tournament to enter the field of 68.
With the best recruiting class in school history coming in and an experienced team hungry to right the wrongs of seasons past, we can expect great things from this team next year.
In the meantime, we’ll have to appreciate this year for what it was: growth in action marked by exceeded expectations. And while Xavier Nation waits in anticipation for November 2014, the Musketeers will be working toward a new season.