When you're showing up on that "Last Four In" in Joe Lunardi's estimation, every game is a vital opportunity to improve your NCAA tournament security. Big or small, pretty or ugly, every victory is a little more strength in the lifeline, every loss is a potentially debilitating blow to your tournament hopes. A hiccup in performance from a team's top players is often the difference between at-large safety and needing an improbable conference tournament run to secure NCAA admission. At the start of Saturday's game against Richmond, Xavier played like a team that understood just that. The defensive intensity was there, X was scoring inside and out, and the tempo was what Xavier needed. The first 16 points of the game went Xavier's way and it looked like the team was going to pick up a huge blowout win to set the tone on the way to Saint Louis on Tuesday.
Then, as has been the extremely frustrating case with Xavier all year, it all went away. Richmond's first basket was a three, but Xavier answered that with a two. Then Richmond went on a 19-7 run that closed lead that had once been 16-0 to 25-22 at the half. All the usual suspects were in play. Defensive energy dropped, allowing Richmond to pick up some easy baskets. The offense stagnated as the man with the ball dribbled and the other four guys watched. Richmond was able to slow the tempo of the game, and the good feeling that had enveloped the Cintas Center during the early portion of the first half had entirely disappeared as the team headed down the tunnel for the team talk at half time.
In games like these, a team hopes and expects to have its seniors set the tone with both urgency and quality of play. Big Kenny Frease - who has been maligned to say the least this year - brought both of those against the Spiders. He had his most productive game of the season, going for 19/14/0 with 2 steals, a block, and only one turnover on 8-17/0-0/3-5 shooting. Frease's offensive efficiency wasn't quite what you'd hope to see - a center needing 17 shots to get 19 isn't perfect - but his effort on both ends of the floor was amazing. His seven offensive boards are a testament to the work he was doing last night. The fact that he only picked up one foul in 29 minutes was just what Xavier needed from its senior big man. The only thing Xavier fans didn't get to see from Frease was his trademark airplane celebration after a dunk.
The second half was nip and tuck the whole way. Richmond finally got all the way over the mountain, taking their first lead at 37-35 with just over 12 minutes to play. Tempo was a huge factor in the game; Richmond held Xavier's pace in check. The game ended on 61 possessions, about seven possessions slower than Xavier's pace through the course of the year and even more slow when compared to Coach Mack's recent statement about wanting to get the pace of the team even higher. In large part, that comes down to defensive effort for Xavier. Despite missing their first nine attempts from the floor, Richmond rallied to end the game shooting .479/.278/.857. Despite turning the ball over nine times before scoring, Richmond ended the game with only 14 TO. Defense is the catalyst to Xavier's fastbreaking offense; the team needs to get back to the defensive intensity that made them so successful early in the year before it's too late.
The game ended up coming down to the final minute, and Xavier's seven-footer once again stepped up to make the big plays. On Xavier's last possession that didn't end in a foul, Tu Holloway came up just short on a 14-foot fadeaway, but Big Kenny had bulled his way into the lane and was standing in the right place when the ball came off the tin to corral the critical offensive board. After another uncharacteristic miss from Tu - this time from the free throw line - it was once again Frease grabbing the offensive rebound to hammer the nails into Richmond's coffin. A Mark Lyons steal and Lyons and Holloway sharing an 8-8 run from the FT line later, Xavier was sewing up an eight-point, up-and-down win in a game they couldn't afford to do anything else with.
Despite his failings in the above paragraph, Tu Holloway put together a very good second half. After going into the interval with two points on 1-3/0-2/0-0 shooting, he rallied for 14 points on 4-8/1-2/5-6 shooting in the second half. Holloway finished the game with a line of 16/5/6 that was marred only by his four turnovers. Tu's contibution was made all the more vital by Mark Lyons' continued struggles; he went for 10/2/2 on 3-9/0-2/4-4 shooting with two steals and three turnovers. Lyons has had real trouble finishing in the lane during his slump, and tonight was no different. He has a tendency to drive into traffic, which makes his potential layups more difficult than the need to be.
The ball was still troublingly stagnant for Xavier; 11 assists on 25 made buckets is not anything to write home about. Tu Holloway had six of those; the rest of the team contrived to put together only five assists. Simply put, Xavier does not have the horses to play isolation basketball and trust only the talent on the floor to make the offense successful. Ball movement always leads to clean looks at the basket, and Xavier's lack of the former often leads to a lack of the latter.
Odds and ends:
-Thanks in large part to Big Kenny, Xavier dominated the glass to the tune of 38-22. X also had 17 offensive boards to Richmond's 3.
-Brad Redford went 1-2 from three and also showed nice touch with a spinning, step-back fadeaway from 17-feet on the baseline.
-Kenny Frease's last touch on the post was with just over five minutes left in the game. That's not a good thing.
-Jeff Robinson had four boards in eleven minutes off the bench, which is servicable.
-In the last half minute of the game, Xavier went from 5-9 from the line to 13-17.
-Andre Walker was himself again, going for 5/5/2 with no turnovers.
(My dad is an old-school basketball guy and a die-hard X fan, and he and I text throughout the games from time to time. His opinions can be both insightful and entertaining, especially pulled from their context. Below is a sampling of his offerings tonight.)
-Dad was at the game Saturday night, taking in the Cintas Center atmosphere and taking advantage of the opportunity to apologize to Big Kenny for all the things he's texted about him this year.
-"Red leads them out of the tunnel. Priceless!"
-"Need to pay attention with no replay, but this is cool."
-"Going to my man Kenny!"
-"11 1/2 minutes of good D. Wells is even better in person!"
-"Lyons out of control; 3 TO in 3 touches. He'd better learn Italian, because that's where he's going to end up playing."
-"Wow. Didn't think that lead could be blown. Too much standing around on offense... again."
-"Lyons is not even looking on the break. Red is wide open."
-"That dude was woofing at Red, so Red took him baseline and faded away. It was magic. Red just turned and headed down court."
-"The big man hedge looks just as bad in person. Don't know why they do that."
-"The Young Joel D is a man. Needs to get on the boards more. I hope he stays four years."
-"Man, that was fun. Great to see the whole floor."
That's that, sports fans. Brad is busy making Cleveland's streets safer, so this will serve as both the Breakdown and the recap. He'll be back this week with a look at the imminent postseason. Xavier next plays in the next iteration of the most important game of the year, taking on Saint Louis at their place on Tuesday. Come back Monday for the preview.