The X-men rose as high as ninth in the national rankings on Feb. 2, only to mock their own prosperity with three dismal road performances in the Atlantic-10. Judging by how those games went down, the Musketeers just weren’t ready to play — and they’re going to pay a price.
Perhaps the cost is incalculable, but we might start adding it up by noting that the Associated Press put Michigan State 13th and Memphis 14th on Feb. 2, in the same poll that placed Xavier ninth. In the next two weeks, Louisville, Wake Forest and Marquette all lost twice, while Duke lost three times. The moment was ripe for Xavier to climb into the top five by taking care of business.
Of course, that’s exactly what didn’t happen. Instead, the Muskies dumped league games at Duquesne, Dayton and Charlotte. Two pollings later, Memphis moved up to No. 5 and Michigan State to No. 6. Xavier fell to No. 16.
What a waste. Xavier could be on a very serious campaign for a second seed in the NCAA Tournament and maybe even a whispering campaign for a No. 1. But the Muskies have shown that they just aren’t good enough, and one wonders how that could have happened.
One suspects that the Muskies lost interest, as if it were just too easy. Right at the moment when they could have called their own shot, they didn’t feel like bothering with it.
Maybe winning their first eight games in the A-10 took some of their edge. Maybe they were hypnotized.
Or, as Xavier coach Sean Miller has often said, they just stopped playing defense. Which probably amounts to the same problem, because so much of defense is effort. Because one hates to question a team’s effort, however, it should suffice to question the defense, and the rest can follow.
In each of the three losses, the Xavier defense faltered. The team then faltered in other aspects as well. The difference between Xavier’s defensive performance in its league losses and league wins provides a dramatic illustration.
In the three losses, Xavier opponents shot 48.3 percent.
In 10 Xavier wins within the conference, opponents have shot only 37.3 percent.
The Muskies’ opponents in the three losses carved them up inside and outside. The three winning teams combined to shoot 44.4 percent (45 for 54) from three-point range. In 10 Xavier wins, opponents hit only 31.2 percent from long range.
The three winning teams shot 51 percent (47 for 92) from inside the arc. In the 10 league games Xavier has won, opponents have made only 40 percent inside the arc.
Inside, outside and all around the floor, the opponents beating Xavier within the league have shot a full 10 percent better than other opponents, basically five baskets better during the course of a game. And the teams to beat Xavier have found the going especially good from long range, making eight three-pointers per game, about three more than Xavier usually allows within the league.
Because Xavier loses track of those games on the defensive end, it begins too many possessions off made baskets by the other team, so the offense can’t really come to the rescue. Ordinarily, Xavier likes to get out off a rebound and score through a broken floor, often with a three-point shot.
In league wins, Xavier makes 45.5 percent of its threes (86 of 189). But in the three losses, Xavier made only 31.3 percent (15 of 48) of its threes. So, in addition to giving up three more three-pointers than usual, Xavier also scored three three-pointers fewer than usual in its league losses.
Going forward, Xavier needs to go backward to a time when it played smothering defense and made a high percentage of its three-point shots. The Musketeers aren’t going to be perfect offensively. They’re going to make their 15 turnovers per game. They’re also not great free throw shooters.
To make up for all of that, they have to turn it up on the defensive end.
Do the losses actually matter? It depends on the real value of a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the tournament falls a certain way, then the right fifth seed could position the Muskies better than the wrong second seed. We’ll probably never know what might have been.
No one likes to likes to lose, but a silver lining might be ready. It doesn’t hurt for the Muskies to take a wake-up call, a reminder that this team really has to be about defense and that lack thereof leaves them vulnerable to anyone.
The larger question concerns this team’s toughness and whether the losses show that Xavier doesn’t have the toughness to survive in the NCAA Tournament. The jury is way out on that one.
A couple kinds of toughness come to mind. One kind is toughing it out when the going gets tough. We really don’t know one way or the other if Xavier has that kind of toughness.
The other kind of toughness might be called tenacity or ferocity, which is toughness when the going isn’t tough. It’s more of what people in sports call “killer instinct,” a true desire to demolish every obstacle in its path to perhaps blow through the Atlantic-10 with a perfect record.
That’s the kind of toughness a team might exhibit when, for example, it’s the premier program in its league, the team for whom all others generate their best efforts. That’s the kind of toughness Xavier would need when it goes into places like Duquesne or Charlotte, where the home team might have little on which to hang its season except a win against mighty Xavier, which confronts that game as an ordinary task and therefore can’t match the home team’s energy.
The Musketeers plainly haven’t shown that kind of toughness. But is that the kind of toughness in play during the NCAA Tournament? Not at this point. Because the Muskies no longer are positioned to draw any pushovers in the tournament, one can be confident that they will be ready to play.
The oddity, which falls a long way short of irony, is that Xavier isn’t ready to play the lesser opponent bringing its best effort, which is the kind of game it would draw in the first round as a second or third seed. By losing those three on the road in the last couple weeks, the X-men have removed that possibility, meaning they’ll play their first round against an opponent they will have to take seriously.
In other words, it’s probably for the best.
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