I'm not going to sugarcoat it here; Xavier hasn't looked good over the past week or so. The Muskies' offense has looked good in fits and starts, but not for a whole game. Too often, the ball has stagnated as the shot clock's inexorable march has continued, forcing Xavier to look for bad shots late or rush bad shots early. Worse yet, the defensive intensity that is supposed to be a hallmark of the team has been almost totally absent. Xavier fans across the internet have been wondering if the bar was set a little too high for this season; some have even begun to question X's tournament status. Things haven't been good recently, but the team is still a work in progress at this point in the season. I don't think we're anywhere close to panic time just yet; below are the reasons.
1) We've been here before. Does anyone recall Xavier's record after 13 non-conference games last year? I do, without looking; it was 8-5. How do I know that offhand so easily? Partly because it's kind of my job here, but mostly because it's the same as Xavier's non-conference record was the year before after the same amount of games. In Coach Mack's first year, the team was staggering through the early portions of the season, perhaps still reeling from Miller's departure. The team's best player (Jordan Crawford) had been benched for disciplinary reasons, and X had just fought into double overtime to beat a mediocre UC team. Last year, X staggered into conference play barely five players deep and on the heels of a 20-point loss to UC. No matter what happens against Gonzaga this Saturday, Xavier is relatively well positioned this year.
2) Coach Mack teams tend to improve as the season goes on. Coach Mack takes a lot of guff for his tactical decisions, but the man's conference record should demonstrate that he is a capable leader for X. The team's 29-3 mark in Atlantic 10 play under Mack is no accident; by the time February is wrapping up, the Musketeers are hitting their best stride of the season. The argument could be made that the talent level of the competition falls off through that stretch, but in that span Xavier is 11-1 against teams that ended the season in Ken Pomeroy's top 100. As the season progresses and Xavier's confidence builds, the beatings that they dish out in conference play are more a credit to X than a shame to their A-10 opponents.
3) Xavier has unprecedented depth. Last year, nobody got fewer minutes off the bench than Xavier did. The year before that, Xavier was 217th in the nation in that department. This season, more than a third of the Muskies' minutes come from players who didn't start, a number that puts X in the top 100 in that nation. This is encouraging for a couple of reason. The first is that it gives Xavier the opportunity to tailor the team on the floor to game situations in way they haven't been able to in years past. The second is that there is a learning curve that comes with trying to integrate new players. Andre Walker, Dez Wells and Dee Davis are still trying to learn their teammates' tendencies; Travis Taylor and Justin Martin have time in the system but are still getting their feet wet in game-speed action. The more time these guys spend together on the court, the better they will become at working together. There's no substitute for that game experience.
4) We expected this. In our season preview, we asked how many non-conference games you all thought Xavier would win. More than half of you selected 9-11 wins for the Muskies. While Purdue and Memphis may have ranked higher on the anticipated losses scale than Hawai'i and LBSU, the fact remains the Xavier will end the season with a non-conference record somewhere between 11-3 and 9-5. Against a schedule that I suspect will look pretty good when all is done and dusted, that's a somewhere between respectable and very good showing.
5) The Muskies are undefeated at full strength. Dez Wells has never lost a game in a Xavier uniform; neither has Landen Amos, for what that's worth. Xavier had some hiccups in the first eight games, but all signs were pointing to the team coming together as a machine in that UC game. These past four games have undoubtedly broken up that momentum and added question marks where once there were only exclamation points, but there is still a lot of season left for X to get back on that same track. Xavier is a talented team with experienced on-court leaders; there's no reason to believe that they can't put together another solid season from this point forward.
There's no reason to get too carried away at this point. A team is never as good or as bad as it looks at any given time in the season. Depending on how far they go in the postseason tournaments, Xavier is barely a third of the way through the schedule at this point. All that really matters is making the tournament and then how you perform in those (up to) six games. The Muskies haven't jeopardized their tournament inclusion at this point, nor have they guaranteed. There's simply too much season left for anything to be set in stone right now; Xavier's fate is as much up in the air as that of every other team in the nation.