Coach Mack finds butterflies revolting. - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
No, not the movie with Ashton Kutcher. One of the things I love and occasionally hate about sports is how little things can end up making a huge difference. Xavier, for instance, is 20 points over the course of 200 minutes of basketball from being a ranked, one-loss team. That's one more basket a half, or one more FT made every ten minutes. Here's how the little things have snuck in to hamstring Xavier so far, and two disparate thoughts about what it means going forward.
Xavier, you may have noticed, is in the midst of something of a slide. After starting the season rather brightly, the Muskies are now heading the wrong direction and back within one game of .500 for the first time since the team's record sat at 1-0. More frustrating for the fan base than Xavier's current record, however, is how they've gotten there. There is no shame in getting beaten by a better team, or a team that was clearly playing well enough to beat you that night. In five of the team's six losses, however, Xavier spent at least one stretch per game looking like a team that could go 0-2 in an intra-squad scrimmage. That's vexing to watch, as I'm sure you're aware.
Before we go too much further, I want to share a word about my methodology here. What we will be looking at in this article is every Xavier loss except the UC game. In each of those games, Xavier sat in a position at some point that gave them a 75%+ chance of winning before somehow contriving to lose. I will be using Ken Pomeroy's win probability charts and box scores as well as ESPN.com's game logs for most of my material here. Because Pomeroy's win probabilities take into account the relative quality of each team heading into the game, Xavier started out with a more than 50% chance of victory at 0-0 in each of these games. Because of that, not all game scoring margin/time remaining situations are created equal. As the Muskies have contrived to prove this year, the better team doesn't always win. Everyone on board so far? Good.
The game: Pacific 70 - Xavier 67
The lead: 11-2 with 14:50 left in the first half, win probability 88.9%
The loss: Xavier came into this game playing really well and receiving votes to be included in the Top 25, but this was also the team's first contest away from Cintas. Despite that, Xavier came out gangbusters early, scoring the first 9 points and 11 of the first 13. At the 14:50 mark, X had 11 points. Seven minutes later, they had 13 points and were trailing by three. During that seven-minute stretch, Xavier went 1-9/1-2/0-2 shooting and turned the ball over twice. Remarkably, Xavier would never lead the game again as a team with far lesser talent held the Muskies off for half an hour of basketball.
The game: Vanderbilt 66 - Xavier 64 (OT)
The lead: 43-30 with 15:21 left in the second half, win probability 97.3%
The loss: In the first 24:39 of the game, Xavier scored 43 points. In the final 20:21, the team scored 23, including an incredible 5:22 scoreless drought to end regulation. In the final 15:21 of regulation, the team scored 11 points on 5-17/0-4/1-4 shooting with 5 TO. This enabled Vandy to use a modest scoring output of 24 points in that time to reverse the script from last year's version of this game and knot the game at 54 after 40 minutes. The offense woke back up in overtime, but once again an incredible spell of poor offense killed the Musketeers' chances in a very winnable game.
The game: Wofford 56 - Xavier 55
The lead: 34-22 with 18:50 left in the second half, win probability 95.5%
The loss: Xavier frittered this one away over the course of an almost impossibly bad 19 minutes of basketball. Up until Semaj Christon and Brad Redford combined for eight points in 34 seconds with less than a minute left, Xavier had scored only 13 points in an inexcusably poor offensive second half. They had gotten there on 5-19/0-4/3-9 shooting with 8 turnovers, leaving the door open for an offensively underwhelming Wofford squad to not only sneak back into the game but to actually take the lead by as many as four on a couple of occasions. Even Redford's back-to-back three-point baskets only served to set up a finish that was a microcosm of the game itself: Jeff Robinson's inexplicable foul, followed by Semaj Christon's all too predictable charge.
The game: Tennessee 51 - Xavier 47
The lead: 33-23 with 15:27 left in the second half, win probability 74.5%
The loss: It's hard to get a lead on the road against a quality opponent, which is why those wins are so valuable to the March Madness resume. Xavier was up ten and looking good at UT when the wheels came off in this one. Apparently seeking new and exciting ways to lose, Xavier played for 10 minutes through the middle of the second half of this game with a single-minded unwillingness to score a field goal. From 15:27 (when Travis Taylor made a jumper) to the 5:20 mark (when Justin Martin duplicated the feat), Xavier scored 3 - three - points on a mind-numbing 0-9/0-0/3-4 shooting and 6 turnovers. During that time, Tennessee went from down ten to ahead by six. Once Xavier started scoring on something other than free throws, they actually outscored UT by two in the final 5:20 of the game. Of course, by that time it was too late for that to make a difference in the win/loss department.
The game: Wake Forest 66 - Xavier 59
The lead: 8-1 with 17:40 left in the first half, win probability 75.3%
The loss: Having blown 35 points worth of second-half leads in their previous three games, Xavier paid homage to their loss against Pacific and gave away an early lead before not quite being able to get back over the hump in this one. After their only offensive success to speak of in the first half came from feeding Travis Taylor on the post, Xavier completely marooned him like Alexander Selkirk in the second half. In the first 8:32 of the second half, Taylor got two touches and Xavier's offensive performance came to 1-10/0-2/3-6 with 4 turnovers. By the time things started to come to life a bit, the Muskies had left themselves a bridge too far and - despite taking a brief lead with 6:58 left - found themselves out of gas after the frenetic effort required to get back into the game. Taylor, meanwhile, finished the second half having gotten 5 offensive touches and 1 shot.
So what, if anything, has this told us? Well, there's more than one way to look at the data. If you're inclined to be negative, you'll see that Xavier has taken five winnable games and turned them into zero wins. You'll see this team is prone to long stretches of complete offensive incompetence that are more than capable of dooming their efforts. Perhaps more disturbingly, you might even notice a lack of in-game or between-game adjustment, leading to the same set of problems and shortcomings rearing its ugly head on a repeated basis. That last point, more than anything, is the reason people who are losing hope for this season/team/coaching staff/program are concerned.
On the other hand, you might also see that Xavier had an expectancy of something on the order of 4.3 wins from their best positions in those five games. A couple of bounces of the ball one way or the other and this team could easily be 12-1 or 11-2 (or 11.3-1.7, I guess) and having people talking about how Xavier never has down year. Heck, if X finishes four of those games, Tim Whelan is probably tearing into a bag of Jack Links beef jerky right now. Sure, there are some problems out there, but this is a young and shallow team that nobody expected to do much after the summer. If they can just fix the simple, repetitive issues that are tripping them up - feed the post more consistently, hit some open jumpers, maybe don't just run people over when you're driving towards the hoop - there's still plenty of time to put together a good conference season. With the strength in the A-10 this year, there are resume wins to be had in the league. Even if that doesn't happen, there's still the opportunity to get hot for four magical days at the Barclays Center and find a bid that way.
Somehow I have gotten cast in the role of the stupidly optimistic guy on this site, probably because that's how I am in real life. Oh well. To me, this glass is still half full. I still believe in the talent on this team, and I don't think it was for nothing that Coach Mack kept them in the locker room for two and a half hours after the Wake Forest game. They've got 13 games of non-conference experience under their belts, have repeatedly put themselves in good positions, and are now ready to take the next step and start finishing games. The A-10 had better watch out.