Travis Steele had a feeling the world was about to change. And he was right.
Xavier University's men's basketball team had just returned to Cincinnati last March, following an unexpected and bitter end to its season – a first-round loss to DePaul in the Big East Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Less than 24 hours after that loss, the coronavirus pandemic would cancel the rest of the Big East Tournament, as well as the NCAA Tournament.
The season was over, and the inevitable, annual question remained: now what?
Steele wanted to meet with his players, to thank the seniors before they went on their way, and talk about the future with his underclassmen.
"I tried to meet with everyone that day because I had a funny feeling that everything was going to absolutely explode," said Steele.
Eventually, Paul Scruggs walked into Steele's office. Scruggs missed the last three games of his junior season with a hamstring injury, and Xavier lost all three of those games when a win in any of the three would have all but guaranteed an NCAA Tournament berth.
Steele said he told Scruggs: "I don't think you should put your name in the (NBA) Draft. I don't think you've earned that right."
Steele didn't think Scruggs had a good offseason leading up to his junior season, and he told the 6-foot-4 guard from Indianapolis that he didn't have the year he wanted him to have.
"I think the reason he didn't have the year I wanted him to have was that he didn't have the offseason that he needed," said Steele.
"Paul just said, 'Coach, I agree.'
"He didn't fight me at all. I think he owned it and right then and there from then on out, he had a great offseason."
Scruggs would call Steele during the offseason while the team was spread out around the country in quarantine, to check-in and tell his coach what he was doing and what he was working on.
When the team finally arrived on campus, Scruggs' work ethic and his daily habits went above and beyond, Steele said.
All of that has led to a senior season that's shaping up to be something special. Through the first nine games, Scruggs is averaging a career-best 15.8 points, 6.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds a game. He's shooting 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point and 81% from the foul line, all of which would be career-highs.
Steele said recently that Scruggs is playing like the best guard in the Big East.
His 60 assists lead the team and he has only 22 turnovers. Compare that to what Scruggs did last season – 81 assists and 79 turnovers in 28 games – and the difference is jaw-dropping.
"I think he's starting to figure out what it takes to be really good," said Steele. "The game's slowed down for him. He's also playing with a lot of confidence. The space that he has on the floor with all the shooting we have has really helped him, too. You think about it, our center (Zach Freemantle) is shooting the heck out of the ball, and we don't have anybody in the lane a lot of times which makes for cleaner decisions. He's playing at his own pace; he's not getting sped up. He just looks very poised."
The senior surge
Dante Jackson knows what it means to wear a Xavier jersey. He won 107 games in that jersey and played in four NCAA Tournaments.
The third-year Xavier assistant coach has had many conversations with Scruggs about what it means to be a senior at Xavier.
"I talk about the people I've been around whether it's Josh Duncan, Stanley Burrell, BJ Raymond, CJ Anderson, Derrick Brown, Tu Holloway, and I always make sure I leave Paul with, listen, man, you can have no regrets," said Jackson.
"Because as quickly as we've gotten to your senior year, this thing is going to be over in the snap of a finger and you don't want to have any regrets. That's on the floor, off the floor, that's being the leader that you're capable of being and that's ultimately leaving your legacy on our program."
There's a change that happens when a player turns the corner into their senior year. It doesn't always happen, but it has for Scruggs.
"For as long as I've been associated with Xavier basketball, we've always been led by our oldest players," said Jackson. "They've set the standard, and Paul has done an incredible job of setting the table and leading by example, and in a lot of ways, forcing his teammates to follow his lead.
"That's something our entire staff has been really impressed with because Paul's really outgoing, but he's not the most outspoken person. He would much rather allow his play and his actions to speak for him, but I think what he's learned is that if you're going to be a leader you have to do both."
Seniors are supposed to take on the responsibility of the team. They've had four years to absorb lessons, develop habits, and learn what it takes to be successful.
"You always knew Paul had it in him," said Xavier assistant coach Ben Johnson, who played college ball at Minnesota. "I think for some guys they just gotta have it click. Him knowing that this is kind of his team this year being a senior with Jason (Carter), there is a lot to be said for that. When guys know they're one of the key figures and take ownership of it, I do think a confidence and maturity comes with it. He's fully embraced that and is comfortable with it."
'I want to win'
Following a last-second 91-88 win over Marquette to open Big East play, Scruggs sat at the post-game press conference podium with a smile.
A man of few words, Scruggs likes to keep his responses to questions short and direct, and often the product of that is a window into what's truly important to him.
"I want to win," Scruggs said.
Saying it is one thing, playing like it is another. Scruggs didn't need to say those four words. His play, right now, is saying it.
Like every sport, basketball's a battle against time, and time's undefeated.
It's a game that comes with one guarantee: someday it will end, and that jersey with a player's name and number becomes a memory.
Scruggs looks like a guy who's uninterested in letting anyone else write the ending to his Xavier story. He gets to write that himself.
"I think what's happened is he's got a group of guys around him that are looking to him for guidance and I think he's taken it personal," said Jackson. "He recognizes that he wants to play in the NCAA Tournament and he wants to have a chance to win a Big East championship and for Team 99 to have that opportunity he has to be better than he's ever been and he has to do things that he's never done before. I'm happy to see him starting to take that next step because he works hard and he's a great kid; he's a winner and he's our leader. It's always good when your best player is doing the right things on and off the floor.
"... I try to tell him that no one's really going to remember what he did his first three years. I'm important, don't get me wrong, and when I say that, I'm half kidding and I'm half not. What you do your senior year is really all that matters. If he can be the leader that we all know he can be and he has proven to be thus far, then our team will have an opportunity to do something that we haven't done in a while – get to the NCAA Tournament and have a chance to win a Big East championship.
"With Paul, it's all about winning. When you keep it black and white and say, 'This is what we have to do to win,' Paul's gonna do everything in his power to do that."