If you're reading this site, I probably don't have to tell you the state of things for Xavier right now. After garnering some momentum from four straight wins in the conference, the Muskies promptly went out and squandered it all against UD. Coach Mack made this observation: "The game started at one; we acted like it wasn't supposed to tip off until two." More alarmingly, the team that had been tops in the conference on defense put in a borderline inexcusable performance in that department. Xavier's conference losses have been near carbon copies of one another. Both were road games, both came against teams that emphasise scoring from beyond the arc, both were the product of barely showing up before the other team had shot Xavier out of the gym.
Obviously, this is not good. The Muskies are a team whose identity is - or should be - based on defense, toughness, and competitive fire. To this point in the conference season, those assets have been intermittent at best against Xavier. The team's swagger is evident while they are in the lead and/or at home, but they are dishearteningly quick to lose heart when down on the road. Muskies fans are looking for reasons to hope that the season is not lost (except for my dad, who is already writing this one off). I don't know if I can offer those, but below is my frank assessment of the current state of the team.
In terms of production, Tu Holloway has not been that much different than the player he was last season. The fact that his raw numbers are down can be attributed in large part to the fact that he has not been getting as many minutes as he did last year. He played 95% of the team's minutes last season and is "only" getting 79% this year. He's also using fewer possessions and taking fewer shots when he's on the court. His true shooting percentage is down about two and a half points, but he is still getting assists, avoiding fouls, and getting to the line at about the same rate as he did last season. Despite that, something seems to be missing from Tu this year, particularly since the brawl against UC. For the year and a half leading up to that incident, Xavier fans could count on Holloway's competitive fire to drag the team into and through tough games. Especially as evidenced in the most recent UD game, Tu seems to still be in search of his swagger.
Mark Lyons has no such issues. As we told you to expect last season, Lyons has developed into a dynamic scoring guard who is increasingly responsible with the basketball. Like Tu, Cheeks is playing fewer minutes this year (69%) than last (86.3%). Unlike Tu, he is out there getting his while he's on the court. Lyons is using a quarter of Xavier's possessions and taking almost 30% of their shots when he's on the floor. His shooting percentages, defensive numbers, turnover rate, and assist rate have all improved significantly when compared to last year. Swagger is also not a problem for Lyons. You don't get "King of Upstate" tattooed on your arm unless you're (a) from upstate and (b) supremely confident in your own abilities. Lyons is two-for-two on those criteria, and he is showing no ill effects from the fallout of the brawl.
Dezmine Wells has shown up on campus for Xavier and been everything he was cracked up to be and more. Offensively, he is an efficient and dynamic force, especially in the open court. Even in the half court, is a very mature player. He's hitting more than 40% of his threes, but he has the good sense not to start looking for his shot at the expense of getting to the rim. He shoots barely more than a three per game. He's also a very good defensive rebounder, owing more to his athletic ability than his technique at this point. He is still a work in progress on defense. He has the physical ability to stay in front of a good offensive player, but he is occasionally guilty of ball watching when defending off the ball and picking up fouls due to naive defending.
Off the bench, Brad Redford and Dee Davis see the majority of the minutes in the backcourt. Redford was borderline awful at the beginning of the year. The effort and hustle were still there, but his shot wasn't. Since 2012 dawned, he is averaging 6 PPG and shooting 8-18 (44.4%) from behind the arc. In other words, he's been himself. He still is what he's always been: a shooter off the bench who forces defenses to adjust to him anywhere on the court. Davis looked better early in the season than he has lately; he has the ability to put reliable pressure on the ball, but he is too small at this point to assert his will on defense. Offensively, he has not put up good numbers. Though turnovers are expected of a freshman guard, his 29% TO rate is simply not acceptable in any regard.
Overall, the backcourt has been the strength of the team, but there have also been some issues. In both conference games that Xavier has lost, perimeter defense has been a problem. LaSalle made some shots that they usually don't, but Dayton was able to get into the lane or clean looks from three seemingly whenever they wanted to. Xavier's offense is often initiated by their defense. Wells and Lyons are elite athletes in the open court, and Tu has great vision on the run. In the half-court, Lyons is able to get his own shot as well as anyone on the team, and Tu still has the guile to get into the lane and onto the line. If X wants to go places this year, the backcourt is going to have to step things up on defense and continue to score the basketball reliably.
After he averaged 11.7 and 7.1 as a junior, Xavier fans were no doubt looking forward to a big senior season from Big Kenny. Last year, he was a legitimate threat who could have been a star on a less guard-focused team. This year, his EFG% and true shooting percentage are both under 50%, which is pretty bad. Despite using almost a quarter of the team's possessions and taking almost a quarter of the team's shots when he's on the floor, Frease's numbers are down across the board. He is still a very good defensive rebounder (18.3% of opponents' misses) and he's blocking 6.3% of opponents' two-point shots when he's on the court. More concerningly, Frease has been part of the teamwide malaise from the line at 22-49 (45%) and he has shown a tendency to disappear in games in which Xavier needs him the most. Few people have been more stubborn in defending Frease than I have, but time is running out for Big Kenny to leave a legacy as a Musketeer.
Andre Walker has been something of a lynchpin for the Muskies' attack this season. While rarely spectacular, he has shown the ability to guard three positions and generally spackle in the cracks on the team. He's a very good offensive rebounder (grabbing 9.7% of Xavier's misses) and a suprisingly servicable shot blocker (3.5% of opponents' shots). He also takes care of the ball fairly well and doesn't use a lot of the team's possessions on offense. Walker may not be the solution to Xavier's problems, but he - other than shooting 54% from the line - hasn't contributed to many of them, either. Thank God Phil Martelli wasn't his coach.
Travis Taylor was supposed to be a revelation for X in the paint; he hasn't been. He has done some things right; he's a great rebounder, grabbing 11.1% of Xavier's misses on the offensive end and 17.8% of opponents' misses on defense. Those both put him in the top 350 players in the nation which, considering that all 345 teams have 12 scholarship guys and 3 walk-ons, is pretty darn good. His complete inability to finish simple layups has both limited his minutes and caused X fans to question how he averaged 18 points per game at Monmouth. Shooting 44.3% is unacceptable from a guy who rarely shoots from outside the paint. His 58.7% mark from the line doesn't help, either; Taylor works hard but simply leaves too many easy points on the floor.
Jeff Robinson and Justin Martin are two of the most enigmatic players in recent Xavier history. Both have the obvious physical gifts to make their lack of output that much more difficult to understand. Jeff Robinson has come on of late on the offensive end, having scored 44 points on 20-24 shooting in his last four games. Martin has gone the opposite direction, putting up 9 points in 65 minutes in the team's last eight games. Both players continue to look somewhere between disinterested and befuddled on the defensive end, though Jeff Robinson at least has the athletic ability to pick up the occasional block from the weak side.
The frontcourt was supposed to be a strength of this team. Reports leaked out of practices last year that Taylor and Martin were sometimes the best players on the court as they worked with the team during their redshirt years. Frease seemed poised for a big senior season, and Walker came with commendations from Vanderbilt. Instead, the whole front line has too often followed the enigmatic example of Jeff Robinson. For every time Frease dominates the paint like he did against UC, there is a game in which he disappears entirely like he did against UD. Sometimes Xavier can't be stopped on the boards, other times the team is completely destroyed in that department. About the only thing that the frontcourt has done consistently is leave points on the floor, as missed free throws and blown finishes have plagued Xavier's bigs all season.
In the press conference yesterday, Coach Mack said that "a team takes on the personality of its coach. I must be a non-competitor, because that's what we were today." I don't think that Mack is non-competitive. The team has often looked complacent or clueless though, which doesn't reflect well on the coach. It took Xavier 30 minutes to figure out Vandy and Purdue, and those games were won more by moments of individual brilliance than they were a coaching adjustment. More concerningly, the team has come out flat on the road on more than one occasion, looking flat-out unprepared to play. These issues culminated in the Dayton game; any goofball could see that Dayton's game plan would be predicated on shooting threes, but Xavier was consistently befuddled by Dayton's offensive tactics. That kind of performance isn't going to get Xavier too far for the rest of the year.
Even though things look dire right now for Xavier, the season isn't lost (Dad). Xavier is currently the 49th best team in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy; they ended the year at 45th last season. Xavier just got clobbered on the road, but Dayton is a good team and UD Arena is a tough venue. Winning on the road is difficult in college basketball, and it's not necessarily and indicator of future success; last year's Final Four teams were 22-23 in true road games. Winning this week against St Louis at Cintas is an absolute must for Xavier; from there, the three danger games in the conference will be at Temple 2/11, Dayton at home 2/18, and at St Louis 2/28. A 12- or 13-win conference season is still well within the realm of possibility for Xavier.
Ultimately, simply making the tournament is the only thing that matters. If you get there, it's a clean slate. Butler was 50th in the Pomeroy ratings at the beginning of the NCAA tournament; Virginia Commonwealth was 84th and media consensus was that they stole Virginia Tech's tourney bid. A few short weeks later, they met in the Final Four. Teams off to less auspicious starts than Xavier's have gone on to have great tournament runs. Xavier needs to clean a couple of things up, particularly their on-and-off level of intensity and their appalling performance from the free throw line. The front line also needs to figure out how to be a reliable enough force on the offensive end to keep opponents' defenses honest. The tools are in place, though, for this year's Musketeers to put things together and leave the current malaise in the dust. At this point, I'm still confident that Xavier will make the field of 64 this year. From there, it's all about matchups and stringing together the six best games of your life.