One lesson they learned is that one less-than-shining moment can change your reputation 180 degrees overnight. Mack suspended Holloway for one game — pointing out that he never actually threw a punch during the fight — Lyons for two games and Dez Wells and walk-on Landen Amos for four games.
Xavier played Oral Roberts eight days after the fight without Holloway and lost, 64-42. From there it went to Hawaii and lost twice more. All four players have been back since the game against Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve (a 72-65 loss), but Xavier has continued to wobble. The win over George Washington made the Musketeers 7-7 since their season and their lives changed.
“In a sense we’ve had to start all over,” Mack said. “It wasn’t just missing key guys against tough opponents, it was everything that was going on around us. You can’t ignore it, you can’t pretend it isn’t there. It’s there.”
Even now, in February, it is there. Mack is still clearly wary about how much Holloway talks to reporters. Even though he scored a game-high 21 points including the winning basket Wednesday, he wasn’t available after the game.
“His parents are here,” Mack explained. “He wanted to go see them.”
It isn’t just that, he admitted: “We have limited him because every time he does an interview the fight comes up. It’s the same questions over and over again.”
Xavier’s basketball tradition is a shiny one. It has been in the NCAA tournament 10 of the last 11 seasons and reached the Elite Eight in 2004 under Thad Matta and 2009 under Sean Miller. Mack, who played for Pete Gillen at the school and graduated in 1992, took the team to the Sweet 16 in 2010 and had a 50-17 record his first two seasons.
Late Wednesday, he looked like anything but a hot young coach, even after a road win. He was limping because he tore a patella tendon in his knee during practice on Jan. 6 and had surgery two days later. A case of pink-eye didn’t help either. In December, his team appeared likely to be no worse than a top four seed on Selection Sunday. Now it sits squarely on the bubble, a situation Mack is almost certain wouldn’t exist if the fight hadn’t happened.
“No way would I have thought we’d be where we are before that day happened,” he said. “We still had some work to do on offense but we were monsters on defense. We haven’t gotten that back.”
He smiled when the question of when he and his players might put all this behind them came up. “If we were 22-0 right now this would have been over week ago,” he said. “But we’re not. Everyone loves winners.”
As he hobbled up the steps and into the night on Wednesday, it was apparent that all that winning didn’t make him feel especially loved right now.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. More more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.