"Control" has been a popular word in college basketball circles this season. Probably because this season – amid a pandemic – has felt especially uncontrollable.
Travis Steele, Xavier University's men's basketball coach, has mentioned control more than once.
And for good reason. This season has reminded the Musketeers how futile it is to concern oneself with things that are beyond control.
Many things, at the moment, are beyond Xavier's control. Like the most recent COVID-19 pause – the Musketeers' second interruption since the season started – which ended Friday after nine days of quarantine and no team activities. This pause was a little longer than the first, due to the fact that the Musketeers had multiple positive tests, one from a player and one from a staff member, both of whom remain away from the team in COVID-19 protocols.
To further complicate matters, Xavier was scheduled to play Tuesday against Georgetown, but that game's already been postponed because the Hoyas are dealing with their own pause.
The Musketeers are scheduled to play their sixth Big East game on Jan. 29 at Butler – the Bulldogs just experienced a false positive on Thursday but returned to team activities on Saturday. Once that game happens, 14 games will remain on Xavier's schedule with only 39 days left before the scheduled start of the Big East Conference Tournament on March 10 at Madison Square Garden.
Xavier would need to average one game every 2.79 days to complete the remainder of its Big East schedule.
The odds of that happening are slim, even slimmer when considering that ratio doesn't take into consideration the possibility of further pauses caused by COVID-19 for Xavier and the rest of the teams on its schedule.
Ultimately, the situation playing out feels like a vice grip, bringing added pressure and weight to each game. As games get harder to complete and the calendar shrinks, each opportunity becomes more important. In a normal season, teams have around 32 chances in the regular season to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament, then that's followed by a conference tournament which brings another chance to earn entry into the dance.
For the rest of this season, it's unclear how many more chances Xavier will get. That raises the stakes every time teams take the floor.
Xavier hasn't played since Jan. 10. They've looked jaw-droppingly good this season, setting a new single-game program record for 3-pointers; they've won a Big East game without making a 3, and they've been beaten like a drum in embarrassing fashion. There's been a little of everything through 12 games.
When the Musketeers take the floor again, what will they look like? How will they regroup? There's no blueprint for any of this. Coaches are used to working, practicing, and improving every day. Players are used to playing, not sitting in their dorms and apartments, exiled from the gym.
The rest of the season hinges on that response. Some teams are likely to get distracted or discouraged by a situation that's beyond their control. The teams that stay the course, stay engaged, and stay together will be the ones that find ways to win.
Postseason pundits and a number of different metrics have the Musketeers, currently 10-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big East, in the NCAA Tournament field. KenPom.com has Xavier ranked 50th. The NCAA's NET ranking has the Musketeers 40th.
It's unclear how many more opportunities Xavier will get to prove itself, but one thing is very clear: how Xavier makes use of those opportunities will decide where the rest of this season goes.