A Magic Season
The Xavier men’s basketball team’s remarkable rise to the top this season began, of all places, at the bottom. The amazing run that culminated in the most successful season in Xavier history started not on the mountain of past successes or even the level ground of a new season, but in a place much lower-the dark hole of mediocrity.
Eighteen games into the season, the team was shoulder-deep in a self-dug pit of nothingness. They had just been blown out by 21 points by George Washington University, a team they hadn’t lost to in three seasons. It was the team’s fourth loss in five games and what members of the team would later deem an embarrassment to the University. With the toughest stretch of the schedule ahead of them, the team-and the season-was in jeopardy of imploding.
And it sent senior guard Lionel Chalmers over the edge.
As the team stumbled into the locker room, Chalmers exploded. He kicked chairs. He punched lockers. He screamed and shouted.
“I just kind of went off” he says. “I lost it a little bit.”
Facing the end of his college basketball career, he wasn’t going to allow himself to go out like this or break the tradition of winning the University was known for. He was the point guard. This was his team. He challenged everyone to step it up.
They did. The team would lose its next game to the University of Dayton, but it found itself in the process. It lost just one other regular season game and stole the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament title by winning four games in four days, something no other A-10 team and only eight other teams in NCAA history had done before. And it handed No. 1-ranked St. Joe’s its first loss of the season-a 20-point blowout.
“We had a feeling there wasn’t a team in the country that we couldn’t beat, but we had to prove it,” says sophomore guard Dedrick Finn. “That game proved it.”
Having won 13 of its last 14 games, Xavier earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament-an accomplishment that wasn’t even a dream six weeks earlier-as one of the hottest teams in the country. Its task was daunting. But not impossible. One by one, the Musketeers knocked off whomever was placed before them-Louisville, Mississippi State, Texas. The only team that kept them out of the Final Four was Duke, and barely.
Could they have won? Should they have won? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what was learned, what was accomplished and what can be gained.
It was a storied season for the fans, who got the thrill of a lifetime. It was a storied season for the University, which was placed in the national spotlight. And it was a storied season for 14 players who discovered who they were in a locker room back in January-a team. “I couldn’t have drawn things up any better,” says Chalmers. “We made a wonderful run. We really did.”
It was unexpected and unsolicited. A letter. It arrived on the desk of University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., shortly after the men’s basketball team returned from its NCAA Tournament appearance in Atlanta. While it was just one of dozens of letters that he received regarding the team, this one stood out because it detailed an encounter between a fan and Justin Cage, one of the team’s players.
Jim Collins IV and his wife, CeeCee, are season ticket holders and occasionally follow the team on road games. Excited over the team’s appearance in the Sweet 16, the Collins’ took their children, Cameron, 7, and Calvert, 6, to the tournament. On Saturday, they noticed Cage sitting in the hotel lobby with his family. The kids approached him and asked if he would autograph a hat.
What came next was a surprise to everyone. It was unexpected and unsolicited. An offer. Cage not only signed the hat, he volunteered to take it and have it signed by the rest of the team. The kids were stunned. He took their names and room number and promised to return it to the family fully signed-as if he didn’t have enough to do to get ready to play against Duke.
It was past 11:00 p.m. by the time Cage finished with the team dinner and meetings and was able to return the hat. Unfortunately, says Collins, the children were asleep. More unfortunately, he adds, was that Cage wasn’t able to see the look on their faces when they woke up and saw the cap.
“Christmas in March in Atlanta,” he says. “We certainly enjoy and appreciate the winning ways of the 2003-2004 men’s basketball team. We are more appreciative and impressed with Justin Cage and the young men that Coach Matta is helping to produce.”
The full letter can be read on the Xavier magazine web site, www.xavier.edu/magazine.
“No team had a bumpier road than Xavier. To have to face Louisville, Mississippi State, Texas and Duke-and play well enough to win each of those games-is remarkable. Compare Xavier’s slate to that of UConn, Duke, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State. It is hard to argue that Xavier didn’t play as tough a tourney schedule, and almost as well, as any team in the Final Four.”
The New York Times “With many underclassmen leaving teams early for the pros, and some high school seniors skipping college altogether, a senior-laden starting lineup has become a rarity in college basketball. Chalmers and Sato represent an envied chemistry, one that has helped conferences like the Atlantic 10 make a national impact.”
The Chicago Tribute From a story about which of the Sweet 16 teams had the most fashionable uniforms:
“Although Texas earns points for the scale of its numbers to its lettering, its blandness was its undoing against Xavier’s bold design. And, as one judge said, ‘I like that X.’ ”
The Washington Post “Of the 16 teams still in contention for the NCAA championship, only four-Duke, Kansas, Vanderbilt and Xavier-posted graduation rates of 50 percent or better in men’s basketball, according to the latest graduation data issued by the NCAA.”
Did You Know?
Xavier has been in the NCAA Tournament 15 times in the last 22 years. Only 13 teams have been there more often.
In the past five years, only seven schools have sent a men’s and women’s team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament: UConn, Duke, Oklahoma, Purdue, Texas, Stanford and Xavier.
Xavier’s Elite Eight game against Duke earned an 8.6 television rating and an 18 share, the highest ratings in that time slot since 1999.
Xavier has won at least 26 games in each of the last three years. Only three other teams have won that many: Duke, Illinois and Pitt.
Xavier has won at least 20 games in each of the last eight seasons. Only seven other Division I schools have a streak of that length: Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Charleston, Maryland, Stanford and Duke.
The spotlight shines brightly on the teams that advance to the Sweet 16, and it covers an area much wider than the basketball court. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, wrote a story for its leisure pages this year on which team’s uniforms were the most fashionable. Xavier’s “X” got an “A” from the paper’s design team.
Each year, at least one newspaper also shines the spotlight on one area that many universities prefer to keep in the shadows-graduation rates of their players. Often perceived as the soft underbelly of college athletics, graduation rates reveal a lot about an institution’s priorities and which part of the term “student-athlete” it chooses to emphasize.
This year The Washington Post examined the rates and found that only four of the final 16 teams had graduation rates of 50 percent or better-Duke, Kansas, Vanderbilt and Xavier. Xavier tied with Duke at 67 percent. The rates included all scholarship players over a six-year period, including those who transferred.
For those basketball players who stay at Xavier for four years, the University’s graduation rate is well documented-100 percent dating back to 1986. Of the four seniors on this year’s team, all earned their degrees. Point guard Lionel Chalmers, a fifth-year senior, spent the past academic year in graduate school. Of the 10 former Xavier players to play in the National Basketball Association, all 10 have their degrees, including last year’s National Player of the Year, David West, who graduated a semester early.