by Tim Daniel
Coming out of Non-Conference play, this Xavier team looked like a team that could make a big run in the NCAA Tournament.
With victories over #19 ranked Ohio State at home, beating Virginia Tech in the Pre-Season NIT, and going on the road to beat Oklahoma State, this team was primed for success.
But, since their last-second victory at DePaul on January 19th, the season has turned into a mighty struggle for the Musketeers.
It's no secret conference play has been a Space Mountain-Esque rollercoaster ride for this team. Since that close DePaul victory, Xavier is 3-8, and on a four-game losing streak.
We'd love to say those few wins would be a glimmer of hope for this team, but they aren't wins providing the most confidence in what this team could be. The win at Creighton on January 29th saw Xavier come back from being down 17 points at the half and scoring 55 points in the second to sweep the Blue Jays, which made a lot of people believe this Xavier team was the same team that pulled off those big victories at the beginning of the season. After this win, Xavier beat a bad Butler team at Cintas Center but only by two, and their only other victory to show during this time was actually a solid win over UCONN in the COVID rescheduled game at Cintas. One of the more impressive parts of that victory was that the team had to play just two days after going to Seton Hall.
In this game, Xavier saw senior sharp-shooter Nate Johnson go down with a knee injury that was described to not be serious. But we are yet to see Johnson play since.
The most surprising thing for this team's four-game losing streak is the inability to get stops. Coach Travis Steele and his staff have emphasized for years now the importance of defense, but in the last four games, three of those losses have been by double-digits.
With up and down seasons from senior leader Paul Scruggs and Preseason first-team all-conference forward Zach Freemantle, Xavier hasn't been able to pack the punch we have grown to expect from them. Especially without Nate Johnson in the lineup.
What we saw yesterday at Cintas Center felt like this could be the lowest of lows. The consensus from NCAA experts is that Xavier still is an NCAA Tournament team, but this is the last week of the regular season and Xavier needs to go back to their old ways, ASAP.
We all know what this team is capable of, although a trip to St. John's is first on the list, a team that beat the Musketeers at Cintas by 13 points. This game may not be a deciding factor on the seeding for Xavier but a victory could go a long way for this team. Not just for who and where they play in the Big Dance but also for getting their confidence back. Before the Big East Tournament, Xavier's last regular-season game is against the Georgetown Hoyas. Patrick Ewing's team is yet to pick up a Big East victory, and we know Xavier doesn't want to be the team that loses to them.
With the season Jack Nunge and Colby Jones have provided for Xavier, the spark they can receive from Dwon Odom, and the shooting ability of Adam Kunkel, Xavier is still a scary team when things go right. But, as coach Steele said yesterday, this Xavier team is going back to Day one defense.
"We have to win with our defense, and we haven't been doing that the last few games. That has to change," a fired-up Travis Steele said to the media in yesterday's post-game presser. "Changing defenses playing 2-3 picking up full court that's just a mask, that's a band-aid. We have to play man to man defense, do our system and we have to play with max effort."
The little things need to be fixed too. Yesterday Xavier missed ten free throws, had 14 turnovers, and looked to have missed a lot of defensive assignments.
"We have to own it. Everybody Staff, Players, Managers. Anybody who touches our players on a daily basis. We have to own it. Is there plenty of time left, absolutely but it's go time. Let's toughen up, do our defensive system, take care of the ball, do the things that win. The things that win are screening, getting back in transition, talking, communicating on a ball screen. Blocking out, being nasty and physical. Those things win."
Yes Xavier has faced adversity, yes Xavier has a resume that should still give them a good chance in the Tournament, but now, it's time to close out on a high note and go to the garden playing your best Basketball you can play.
photo courtesy of Desmond Fischer of the Xavier Newswire.