Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote "There's nothing in this world so sweet as love. And next to love the sweetest thing is hate." I'm not certain Longfellow was a Xavier fan, it seems unlikely, but he could have been writing about the feelings of Xavier Nation right now. There is a great deal to love about our beloved Musketeers, but some nights, it is just as easy to hate them.
Last night was a night where both were on display. The tenacity of Mark Lyons stood in stark contrast to the apathy of Kenny Frease and the frontcourt. Tu Holloway's desperate attempts to get to the line and save the game were in glaring contrast to the lack of impetus Frease, Andre Walker, and Travis Taylor showed in combining for seven rebounds in 48 minutes. It was easy to love the boys from New York as they fought valiantly, it was much more difficult to stave off the hatred other players inspired.Once again, Xavier was in trouble almost from the off. Dee Davis and Jeff Robinson started for Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease. Apparently, effort in practice was a contributing factor, but there had to be some other reason Coach Mack started the biggest game of the year with the heart of his team on the bench. Kenny Frease, at best a vestigial organ on this night, was the first big back in, but Mark Lyons didn't appear until after Brad Redford had also seen minutes. While the Musketeers set about trying to solve the best defense in the A10, their leading scorer watched.
It didn't take long for the Billikens to solve Xavier's defense. Actually, it took only 11 seconds for Kwamain Mitchell to find himself open to bury a three. A minute and 20 seconds later, Rob Loe drained another to make Saint Louis 2-2 from behind the arc. That made the score 6-4 and gave the Billikens the lead. They would not trail for the rest of the game. At the second TV timeout though, it was still a game. Xavier was down 15-14 on the strength of eight points from Tu Holloway, who clearly wanted the win. Holloway made three of his first four shots in the opening eight minutes, but went 1-7 from the floor from that point on. To his credit, he never quit attacking and a good officiating crew would have had him at the line for far more than the 14 free throws he took.
That was all down the road though, and it was Xavier's defense that was inexcusably bad (again) in the first half. A Billikens team known for taking the air out of the ball and grinding down possessions somehow managed 42 points on 15-29 from the floor, including a glittering 7-14 from behind the arc. The gameplan for teams playing Xavier is clearly to spread them out and capitalize on the ridiculous hedging on screens 25 feet from the basket. While Frease and Jeff Robinson are chasing guards in space, shooters are destroying the Musketeers.
Down 41-29 at the half, Chris Mack showed the ability to make some adjustments. For starters, Mark Lyons played nearly to entire second half, giving Xavier some of the offensive and defensive intensity it lacked early. Secondly, Xavier showed a bit of a defensive move back to the packline in the second period, allowing Saint Louis no three pointers in the second half.
Unfortunately, Xavier's bigs were absurdly soft again. Future NBA star and All-World basketball talent Brian Conklin tore both Kenny Frease and Andre Walker apart in the post. Conklin gives up a good deal to both players standing only 6-6 and weighing only 230. Despite that massive size discrepancy, Conklin put on a low post clinic in the Cintas in the second half, scoring 13 points, grabbing four rebounds, and completely controlling the game. Frease was abject, worse than useless against a player he should have dominated.
Despite the horrendous defense in the first half and the impotent performance by anyone playing in the post, the Musketeers clawed their way back into the game. With 10:20 to go, Tu Holloway finished two free throws to tie the game at 50. Mark Lyons simply would not be denied, scoring on drives, a jumper, and two threes during the 19-5 run that tied the game. But, for all the effort it took to draw even, it only took three minutes for Saint Louis to rip off eight straight, six by the loathsome Brian Conklin, to make the lead 58-50 with seven to play. Xavier pulled within three late, but Saint Louis made their last nine free throws. By the time the half empty Cintas finally disgorged the full crowd, it felt like a lot more than a game had been lost.
Home court advantage? The home crowd is supposed to give a team a boost, especially early in a game. Instead, Xavier didn't compete until the game had already rolled into the second half. The Billikens, somehow, caught the Musketeers off guard with the same patient offense they've run all year. That negated any home court advantage the Cintas fans may have brought.
Is there any heart? Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, and Jeff Robinson (!) all fought all game long. It would be unfair to Brad Redford to say he did anything other than show his never ending hustle. Other than that, this team was limp, unmotivated, and looked apathetic. Dez Wells gave it a run as well, but it just wasn't his night.
Can Xavier beat a good team? Not right now. There's nothing more to say on this.
What I Liked:
1. The guards: Lyons and Holloway never, ever quit. Tu didn't shoot well, so he got himself to the line, where he was 14-14. Lyons scored 19 in the second half and, if anything, tried too hard on a couple of occasions. Xavier scored 68, the New York duo had 49 of those.
2. Adjustments: Coach Mack can't make the bigs play well, he can change the defense. In the second half Xavier forced Saint Louis into 31% shooting from the floor and held the Billikens to only seven second chance points. Unfortunately, Saint Louis went 18-24 from the free throw line.
3. Jeff Robinson: No one has hated on Robinson more than I have, but he's really playing well right now. He had 10/6/1 to go with two blocks and only one turnover. If any other big was playing at all right now, Robinson would be a perfect complimentary player.
What I Hated:
1. First half defense: Seriously, that was it? Saint Louis has bigs who can shoot and likes to stretch a defense. Again, Xavier was unprepared and was consistently caught hedging screens or sagging too far off Rob freaking Loe. Words cannot describe how bad Kenny Frease was on the perimeter (or down low, to be fair) and Jeff Robinson, for all his offensive improvement, still looks lost on the other end.
2. The coaching: Again, the Musketeers came out flat and unprepared. Being beaten will happen on occasion, but losing because you cannot read a scouting report or effectively analyze film should not happen. For some reason, Xavier has been caught flat footed for two straight games now. The second half adjustment was encouraging.
3. The bigs: Only Jeff Robinson acquitted himself well, and he's only a quasi big man. Frease was good for 4/5/1, Walker managed 1/2/0, and Taylor got 2/0/0. That's awful. That's worse than awful. Joel stayed home sick today because of how bad they were (ok, I'm not sure that was it). All that could be forgiven if the defense had been anything other than putrid, but it wasn't. No one had an answer for the ground bound Conklin, and no one seemed concerned with sealing. On one play in the second half, three Xavier bigs lost the rebound to the relentless Dwayne Evans. Frease and Walker were just unreasonably soft inside all game. Inexcusable, inexcusable, inexcusable.
Bonus- Brian Conklin: He's 6-6, not athletic, and not a shooter. Despite that, he destroyed anyone Xavier threw at him. His dizzying array of pump fakes, up and unders, and pivots astounded Walker and Frease, who acted as if they had never seen it before. Conklin also has stupid hair. Actually, I can't hate Conklin too much. His body movement and positioning were that of a genius. It was frustrating to watch, but he can play ball.
Next game: @Charlotte, Saturday at 7pm.