But it’s not as morose as it sounds. The ashes in Xavier’s locker room represent the Musketeers’ month of February.
On Feb. 28, Xavier was in the midst of a five-game losing streak. The Musketeers had just lost a tough game at home to Butler in which they turned it over four times in a two-minute span late in the second half. After starting point guard Edmond Sumner was lost for the season because of a torn ACL, Xavier was just 3-5 for the month.
The Musketeers needed a spark, something to change the momentum.
“We sat in one of those infamous staff meetings and tried to figure out how to turn the page,” coach Chris Mack said.
And so assistant coach Mike Pegues threw out the idea of burning a calendar. Putting the entire month of February in the past.
Mack wanted to take it a step further.
“Let’s not just burn it. Let’s keep the ashes, buy an urn,” Mack told his staff.
The coaches went onto Walmart’s website looking for urns, something none of them had ever done. They sent graduate assistant Allen Payne out to the store to pick one up, but the one they wanted wasn’t available anymore. So they settled on a jar that wasn’t technically an urn, but it was glass, and you can see inside of it. It would suffice.
Mack called the players in for a meeting before practice that day, emphasizing the difficult schedule they just navigated through during the losing streak. He told them they were still an NCAA tournament team, with most bracketologists having them in the No. 8- or 9-seed range. Then he showed the players a video set to “One Shining Moment,” a collection of all of the best Xavier moments in the NCAA tournament over the years.
“That’s why you guys came here,” he told his players.
Mario Mercurio, the team’s director of basketball administration, made a calendar of the month of February for every player. It was a stock card with the games, the scores — and showed how three of the losses came back-to-back-to-back to bubble teams (Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall) on the road.
Mack then asked each of the players to write one thing on the back of the calendar: something each player was willing to sacrifice over the next couple of weeks for the betterment of the team. It was private; no player had to share.
“We had a big aluminum trash can in the middle of the locker room,” Mack said. “We made sure all the smoke detectors and alarms were off. Everybody burned it.”
Anticlimactically, Marquette came to town the next day and shot 57 percent from 3-point range to send Xavier to its sixth straight defeat. But the message was already sent. The team was moving forward and not dwelling on what happened over the previous three weeks.
Since that Marquette loss, Xavier is 5-1, with the lone loss coming on a last-second shot from Creighton’s Marcus Foster in the Big East semifinals. The Musketeers received an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament, then beat Maryland in the first round and routed 3-seed Florida State in the second round by 25.
And they have carried the ash-filled jar with them each step of the way. It will be with them in San Jose on Thursday, when they face Arizona in the Sweet 16 (10:09 p.m. ET, TBS).
“We just wanted our guys to constantly have a reminder, no matter where we went,” Mack said. “During practice, managers put it out on the scorers table. We wanted our urn to go with us. So our players were forward-thinking and not worried about what happened.
“We wanted our players to understand that February was over. It’s played out well for us.”
And the six-game losing streak has been forgotten. The memories are gone.