Xavier fan Bill Murray knows all too well that real life and art converge frequently — sometimes in moments of unrestrained pleasure, sometimes in moments of limitless pain.
Sunday night in St. Louis — a city which has lifted Chicago sports fans’ hearts in hockey but broken them so many times in baseball over the years — Bill Murray was introduced to life as a Musketeer in March.
You know the story by now: Murray’s son Luke was in his first season as an assistant to head coach Chris Mack. This brought the legendary comedic actor into the community of Xavier basketball fans.
Xavier started from a small place in the 1980s under then-coach Pete Gillen, but it gained a reputation as a giant killer. All the program’s NCAA tournament wins generated those valuable win shares, which poured revenue into the program and its conferences. Xavier made the conscious decision to make its way forward without football and devote resources to basketball. In this way, the school — which had been what one could reasonably call a mid-major — transcended mid-major status. Its budgetary allotment and national aspirations — accompanied by a subsequent rise to the Big East Conference — pointed to a high-end basketball dream.
Never having made a Final Four (the school reached the Elite Eight in 2004 and 2008), the program’s best-ever chance for greatness existed in this wide-open tournament. Mack — himself searching for his own Final Four debut — had to feel his group of guys was capable of a deep run. Seeded second, this was the time to grab the brass ring and a piece of history.
Instead, Groundhog Day emerged in March, courtesy of some Badgers, chiefly Bronson Koenig:
The Badger buzzer-beater didn’t merely send recent Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky into gleeful orbit; it shattered Xavier’s hopes before they could truly blossom. An exit before the second weekend won’t give this team the spotlight it felt it deserved. The St. Louis regional site hosted a pair of No. 2 seeds. Neither Michigan State nor the Musketeers got out of the Gateway City with their tournament dreams intact.
Cruel beast, this. Welcome to life as a Xavier fan, Bill Murray. It’s been like this throughout the 21st century, as Xavier shifted from “little darling” to “aspiring power” in much the same way Mark Few and Gonzaga have.
How did Xavier lose? It faced the kind of defense Wisconsin has needed in order to be successful this season.
Wisconsin, the past two years under Bo Ryan, had the fully-skilled players who could win a pretty game. Kaminsky and Sam Dekker enabled the Badgers to win shootouts. With those players gone in the first season for interim-turned-permanent head coach Greg Gard, the Badgers had to recall the days when they’d coerce opponents into street fights, forcing a slower and more deliberate style of play even with the shortened (30-second) shot clock. Wisconsin won just such a slugfest against Pittsburgh on Friday. It wasn’t pretty, but the Badgers advanced.
Sunday, that same defense — which limited Pitt to 43 points — was on full display.
Xavier averaged over 80 points per game during the season, and fell well short of that number in the round of 32. Jalen Reynolds was 6 of 7 for the field for Xavier. He — with teammates Sean O’Mara and J.P. Macura — went 11 for 16 from the field.
The problem? Xavier’s other players in a guard-dominated lineup went just 11 for 38. Xavier hit only five threes all game long, and mustered only 14 points at the foul line. Those numbers all lagged behind season averages for X, but what really didn’t mark the spot for the 2 seed was that it didn’t get extra possessions in which to score.
Wisconsin didn’t merely lock down Xavier’s guards; it locked down possessions. The Badgers allowed only five offensive rebounds to the Musketeers. Considering that Xavier missed 32 shots, that’s an offensive rebounding percentage lower than 16. Wisconsin played a vintage possession game, and when Xavier’s first look didn’t fall, the Musketeers hardly ever got a second look.
Xavier’s offense was a microcosm of this game and this season for Chris Mack’s group: one and done — no next opportunity awaits.
In retrospect, the Badgers — who made just 17 field goals against Pitt and scored only 47 points — could not have been better situated to ruin Xavier’s March party on Sunday.
When a reasonably capable team survives a generally rough performance this time of year, it gets the best of both worlds: It still advances in a bracket, but it is almost certain to improve across the board. Surviving bad nights doesn’t merely promote the cause of advancement on one night in a tournament; it does so for multiple rounds in a tournament.
Consider the case of the man who drove the dagger into Xavier’s heart.
Friday against Pittsburgh, Bronson Koenig scored only 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting from the field. Pittsburgh’s guards were ready for the man who became a superb role player on the Kaminsky-Dekker-Nigel Hayes superteams of the previous two seasons. Being able to survive a horror-show night from Koenig had to give Wisconsin the confidence that this game would be very different.
20 points and a buzzer-beating dagger later, it certainly was.
Wisconsin — happy enough to still be playing in Greg Gard’s increasingly magical first season — should be even more euphoric about the fact that it just got through two games in St. Louis without a breakout performance from Nigel Hayes. The immensely-skilled forward scored just 6 points against Xavier and totaled just 18 for the whole weekend — his three-point jumper has simply not been true.
Expect Hayes to bring a better jumper to Philadelphia for the East Regional semifinals against Notre Dame on Friday. Wisconsin has to feel very good about its chances for the Elite Eight.
Xavier’s chances for a first Final Four? They’ll have to wait ’til next year.
Bill Murray — who has heard that anthem quite often as a diehard Chicago Cubs fan — just got the full Xavier experience in March Madness.
Groundhog Day never felt so miserable.