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Xavier's NCAA Loss Is a Moral Victory; UK's Loss Just Sucks

By Bill Peterson · March 21st, 2007 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Life after basketball for the Xavier Musketeers won't include the exciting story about a day they took down the top-ranked team from upstate while eliminating their former coach in the same moment of the NCAA Tournament. But they can always say it should have.

The Musketeers played the game we've come to love about them for the past 20 years, except they lost this one. How can you blame them?

Justin Cage scored 25 points, his best output all season, keeping Xavier in the thick with No. 1 Ohio State and former Xavier coach Thad Matta all afternoon on March 17. Cage made six of eight free throws but missed the last one. How can you blame him?

All the Musketeers needed was that one free throw with 9.3 seconds left for a 63-59 lead, which would have been essentially goof-proof. But Cage missed. And Ohio State flew down court, where Ron Lewis made a 25-footer with two Xavier players flying toward him to tie the game with 2 seconds left in regulation time.

The Musketeers went on to lose 78-71 in overtime, falling from the tournament one game short of the Sweet 16. And how can you blame them?

The answer, of course, is that you don't, which is at once the blessing and the curse of Xavier basketball. The Musketeers and their fans seem always to be content with the identity Pete Gillen gave them 20 years ago as the Little Team That Could.

They'll never win the national championship with that outlook, but pulling for Xavier isn't the same as dreaming of the championship. It's dreaming of giant slayings rather than of gianthood.

Xavier is the team you love because you love to hate the powers and Xavier is your ally against them. If Xavier became a power, it would no longer be so charming.

If Xavier had beaten Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament March 17 in Lexington, what would we say? We'd say the win made Xavier's season. We wouldn't say it's just fine if Xavier were to lose next weekend against Tennessee, but we wouldn't have to.

We'd say the Xavier players made the statement on behalf of themselves and their fans to the coach who told the world he was staying there one day and then went to Ohio State the next. We'd say Xavier struck a blow against dishonesty.

Matta's departure three years ago is the norm in the borderline sleaze of college basketball, where honesty cripples careers. Sean Miller will leave someday, and if it's not much prettier we shouldn't be too surprised.

Moving from Xavier to Ohio State is a statement, too, about the kinds of programs that can compete for the national championship. It isn't the programs that dream of giant killing. It's the programs where if you're not lying you're not trying. Not to say Ohio State runs a dirty athletic program, but let's just say the NCAA has put a lot of man hours into making sure it doesn't.

Much more goes into it, of course. As much as Matta has recruited Indiana during his past three coaching stops, what are the chances Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. from Indianapolis would have signed with Matta if it meant they'd play for Xavier?

That's why Matta still is playing for the national championship while Xavier isn't. He went to a program with the resources and commitment, a program that can and will do what it takes.

That's the way college basketball goes, and if you don't like that and you still like college basketball you need to do some explaining to yourself. Unless you like Xavier's approach and its dreams of giant killing.

Xavier isn't a college basketball destination like Ohio State or UC. Xavier is a place where diamonds in the rough are polished into nice basketball teams with the chance now and then of rising past humble origins to reward teamwork and diligence.

Compare with the University of Kentucky, where fans haven't cheered teamwork and diligence since Rick Pitino's first team there finished 14-14 in 1990. Kentucky fans don't sit at home after losing to a regional top seed and say, "Nice try."

In the first place, UK fans are mad because their own team isn't good enough for a top seed. In the second place, they're mad because they haven't been to the Sweet 16 in two years. In the third place, their fans worry that their proud program is turning into Tennessee. Wait ... Tennessee is still playing.

UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart has twice in the past few weeks addressed the fate of basketball coach Tubby Smith, who has overseen 14 losses in the Southeastern Conference during the past two years. UK used to not lose that many league games in a decade. And the future doesn't seem especially bright as long as UK doesn't pop up as a contender when kids like Greg Oden are thinking about college.

Kentucky fans, who love recruiting almost as much as basketball, can't be enjoying any of this. The extent to which UK has fallen might be gleaned from the pre-game talk when the Wildcats prepared for Kansas in the NCAA second round March 18. Everyone said the Wildcats needed to keep regional top seed Kansas from stepping up the running game. Ouch. Kansas went on to run UK out of the tournament, 88-76.

An aesthetic issue about playing style works hand in glove with the decrease in victories at UK. Kentucky and its fans historically thrive on racehorse basketball. Even when UK wins, it's less pleasing to the fans if the Cats aren't blazing around the floor.

When Pitino brought back the running game after 20 years of Joe B. Hall's power game and Eddie Sutton's motion game, fans loved the runs as much as they loved the wins. Smith then won a national championship in 1998, his first year as UK head coach, using a running game with players he and Pitino recruited. As the years have passed, however, Kentucky is less of a player in recruiting, less of a running team and less of a winner.

At UK, "less of a winner" means the team doesn't make the Sweet 16. At Xavier, "more of a winner" means the team does. Which is how Xavier and Kentucky can come through the same weekend of the NCAA Tournament with the same results and view them very differently.



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