If you don't want to read about another depressing loss, scroll to the bottom for the Bubble Watch. Otherwise, get ready, it gets ugly from here.
There was only one thing that Xavier could not afford to do last night at UMass, and that was lose. It didn't matter how Xavier won, be it ugly, efficient, a track meet, or whatever, but they could not afford to lose. As you well know now, losing is precisely what the Musketeers did.
I mentioned last week that sometimes it seems as if the coaching staff does not have the Musketeers ready for a game. Once again last night, in a pivotal game, that seemed to be the case. UMass thrives on high pressure defense and offense that is effective only in short bursts. Keys coming were going to be avoiding that killer run early, and taking care of the ball. Xavier, in a depressingly familiar sight, did neither.
What Xavier did last night in terms of turning the ball over was so pathetic it was nearly impressive. In the first six minutes, X turned the ball over an astonishing 11 times. At one point in that stretch, Xavier was on pace for 108 turnovers. While that seemed unlikely, 80 was a real possibility. Bluntly, Xavier was again completely unprepared for what the Minutemen threw at them, and it showed.
Despite eventually turning it over 16 times in the first half, Xavier actually built a five point 21-16 lead with nine minutes to play. That gives you some idea of how bad the Minutemen truly are. Following the Kenny Frease layup that gave Xavier that high water mark lead, the teams combined to go nearly two minutes without anyone scoring. Out of that offensive malaise came Raphiael Putney.
Joel said of Putney "he fits the profile of the stretch four that has been ravaging Xavier's defense this season. He has hit 37 of the 99 threes he has taken on the year. If he manages to get free on the perimeter against Xavier's oft-maligned high ball screen defense, it could be a long night for the Muskies." Starting at the 7:20 mark, Putney buried a trifecta of three balls in three minutes. With Chaz Williams also making a three and Terrell Vinson scoring a basically uncontested layup, the Minutemen went on a 14-2 run to give them a 30-23 lead. Putney was simply a matchup nightmare for Xavier, just like any four with the ability to shoot has been.
That 14-2 run came as part of a 25-8 run that ended the half and gave UMass a commanding 12 point, 41-29 halftime lead. It continued the trend of Xavier allowing over 40 points in a first half and, more disturbingly, again showed the coaching staff was not ready for the three point rain that the Minutemen would bring. UMass went 6-15 from behind the arc as they attacked the big man hedge that has given Xavier's opponent free reign for so much of the year. As the players rotated helplessly, the Minutemen started to put the game on ice. Putney, someone Xavier should have marked as an issue, scored 11 in the half, a point over his per game average on the year.
There was one bright spot for Xavier in the first half though, and that was Dez Wells. Wells did turn the ball over six times in the game, but he demonstrated the ability to shoot from outside if given space and time, finishing 4-5 from behind the arc. Wells put up an impressive line of 19/1/3 to go with the three steals he also accumulated. His relatively weak effort on the boards was a point of emphasis for Coach Mack after the game, but X still out-rebounded UMass by a margin of 10.
The second half started with a rejuvenated Xavier chasing the game and finally making some headway. Actually, it didn't. True to form, Xavier followed up a terrible first half by playing listlessly to start the second half. Sean Carter went on a personal 6-3 run and the lead started to stretch. At exactly 12 minutes to play, UMass took a 20 point lead. Then, things got a little bizarre.
If you ask any serious Xavier fan who the Musketeers best chance for instant offense is, they will tell you it is Brad Redford. The three point specialist from Michigan is shooting 36% from behind he arc this year, but that doesn't tell the story so much as his 50% mark since 2012 began. Sure enough, two made threes in a row from Redford pulled Xavier back into the game at 59-47 with 10:37 to play. With Xavier desperate for offense after that, Redford got only two more shots and didn't play in the last five minutes.
Perhaps even more bizarre than that was the sudden emphasis on Kenny Frease. In the last ten minutes of the game the Musketeers decided, finally, that feeding the big man was worth some effort. Kenny responded with 10 points, two assists, four rebounds, and a block in that stretch. None of that mattered though, because half size point guard Chaz Williams of UMass took the game over.
While Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons combined to go 8-27 from the floor and mostly fail to positively effect the game, the tiny point of the Minutemen went for 16/3/3 in the second half alone. Add in Williams first half and he went for 29/5/9 on an 8-12/6-8/7-7 shooting line. In short, he dominated the game. Xavier simply never adjusted to the fact that Williams would pull from the top of the key and paid the price for it.
You know the rest of the story by now. Facing insurmountable odds, Xavier finally woke up and made an effort. A couple poor decisions (by coaches and players alike) kept the comeback from being realized and the final score flattered the Musketeers efforts for the game. Once again, lack of preparation and lack of adjustments kept Xavier from winning a game they desperately needed. UMass 80-73 Xavier makes it look far closer than it was.
And where was Redford?
-Can Xavier handle the pace? Coach Mack said in his postgame comments that Tu seemed tired after his herculean effort on Saturday. This didn't keep the coach from literally never taking Holloway out of the game. Tu aside, the Musketeers handled the pace ok conditioning wise, but clearly had no idea what to do in the first ten minutes of the game. That masterclass of errors kept XU from running away with the game.
-How will Xavier defend the perimeter? The same way they always do, poorly. UMass went 10-27, 9-21 if you subtract the 1-6 performance of unreluctant heaver Freddie Riley. Xavier was again late rotating out and kept giving up good looks. Do that long enough, and you will lose.
-Can one of Xavier's bigs please finish around the rim? It was a two-edged sword here. Kenny Frease put up a very nice 12/8/2 line and went 5-7 from the floor. That's all Xavier needs from him. Unless, of course, Jeff Robinson, Andre Walker, and Travis Taylor combine for 7/12/1 on 2-5 from the floor. Both makes and five of the points were Robinson's, despite Walker and Taylor starting. That's just horrible.
What I Liked has been suspended until I can think of something. In its place comes the Bubble Watch. Xavier had a chance to solidify a spot or at least get some breathing space last night. Instead, they played apathetically for most of the game. This caused a bit of a shake up.
ESPN: Joe Lunardi, bubble guru at ESPN, moved Xavier from a sure spot to his "last four in." That's tenuous ground for a team that rarely shows much impetus. Eamonn Brennan, one of the best ESPN has, put Xavier in his "Bad (and Occasionally Sad) Losses" column. Brennan says that Xavier "may have to get a really difficult win at Saint Louis next week to feel safe about their chances." Does anyone really see that happening? Brennan does say that Xavier's computer numbers look good, and that the loss to UMass could have been worse. That's cold comfort.
CBS: When Jerry Palm updated his bracket projection this morning, he saw Xavier as a 10 seed. Don't ask me how. Palm doesn't even have Xavier on his last four in.
FOX: "The Musketeers got a season-saving overtime win over Dayton on Saturday, but took a hard fall with Tuesday night's 80-73 loss at UMass. This is going to come down to the wire." That kind of says it all, doesn't it? Fox does have Xavier one above Dayton's "win out" requirement.
RPI: #63 is the lowest RPI to have gotten an at-large since the formula changed, and that has only happened twice. Xavier sits at #56 right now. A loss to Richmond (142) or Charlotte (149) would end any at-large chances. Saint Louis (22) will be a boost either way, and a win could really solidify things.
Syonpsis: Xavier has to beat Richmond and Charlotte, no matter what. A win a Saint Louis and advancing to the semi finals of the A10 tournament should then be enough. Beating Saint Louis and then somehow beating Temple (17 RPI) in the tournament would push Xavier off the bubble. If Xavier doesn't beat Saint Louis or Temple and doesn't win the A10 tournament, I don't expect them to get in.