Xavier headed to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving sporting a 5-0 record and a great chance to start building an NCAA tournament resume. Three disastrous days later, the Musketeers sat at 5-3 and suddenly went from looking very solid, to very, very bad. All the optimism that surrounded the team as it boarded the joint flight with Tennessee has completely disappeared. For the second year in a row, Xavier collapsed over the long weekend. What went wrong?
1. Semaj Christon cramped up- After 28 minutes against Iowa the Musketeers had scored 55 points, taken a 15 point lead, and were thrashing a nationally ranked team. At that point, Semaj Christon limped off the court with a 14/4/2 line. After that, according to Coach Mack, "the wheels fell off." Xavier collapsed, lost the lead, and lost the game. The place where the games were held was not a gymnasium but a converted ballroom with mediocre ventilation and low, hot, lighting. Both Semaj and the excellent Roy Devyn Marble cramped up.
Still, not every player cramped up. Semaj has a history of this sort of thing, and now he's been felled in the most important game of the year. I don't know if he doesn't drink enough, stays out late partying, or sleeps in a sleeping bag with his legs folded underneath himself, but he's got to get it sorted. Missing a minute because of a cramp has happened to everyone who has ever played the game. Missing 17 of the most important minutes of the year because you can't even run is entirely a different beast. Figure it out.
Christon returned to play in the next two games, but showed no real bounce until late against the Trojans. Whether that was attitude, competition, or injury based I don't know, but it seemed as if he didn't really trust his legs. That led to him being a total non-factor against Tennessee and not getting things rolling until too late against USC.
2. Free throws- In the first game the free throw woes looked as if they wouldn't matter at all, and then they did. 18-28, (64%) isn't as glaringly awful as some of the lines Xavier has put up this season, but it still cost them the game. Myles Davis and Justin Martin combined to go 8-9, leaving the rest of the team at essentially 50%. In a game that goes into overtime, one more made free throw makes an obvious difference.
Against Tennessee the Musketeers went an appalling 3-10 from the line. That wouldn't have made a difference in a game in which Xavier was destroyed inside the first 20 minutes, but it somehow made the loss feel even worse. Against USC the Musketeers poured in 11-20 from the stripe. That seemed insignificant at first, but then 13 points in 94 seconds brought Xavier right back into the game (somehow). It's hard to say what three or four more points would have done to the game situation, but they certainly wouldn't have hurt.
That makes two of three games in the Bahamas in which free throw inabilities hurt Xavier badly. Dee Davis (75%), Myles (70.6%), and James Farr (70%) are the only Musketeers shooting a respectable number from the line. Unfortunately, those three have taken only 31 of Xavier's 200 free throw attempts this year. Semaj has made 50% of his 57 tries and is by far the biggest offender, but Isaiah Philmore (61%), Jalen Reynolds (59%), and Justin Martin (58%) can't escape blame. Xavier currently stands 341st in the nation in free throw percentage.
3. Defensive rebounding vanished- 20, 16, 9. Those are the offensive rebounding numbers that Xavier's opponents put up. The nine of USC isn't all that impressive, but considering they are barely average at grabbing them and Xavier had been elite at not allowing them, it still wasn't great.
The Tennessee game was especially glaring because the Volunteers came within a single rebound of grabbing half of their misses. That led to Tennessee scoring an incredible 26 second chance points. That's 26 of their 64 points coming after they had already missed a shot. In that game James Farr led Xavier with six rebounds. Matt Stainbrook tied Brandon Randolph for second on the team. Isaiah Philmore grabbed one. Jalen Reynolds contributed exactly none in ten minutes of play.
Iowa also benefited from Xavier's graciousness on the defensive glass, sticking in 23 second chance points. In case you think that facts are being skewed to make things seem worse than they actually were, consider the fact Xavier scored 15 second chance points in the entire three game span.
4. Dee Davis- Dee put up a 2/1.6/2 line on .066/.125/.750 shooting down in the Bahamas. That is shockingly awful. Consider that he also turned the ball over nine times (five against Iowa) and didn't score in the last two games and you have a Thanksgiving Darwin will not want to remember.
We have said multiple times that Dee is limited but can be useful in some situations. Down in Nassau, he wasn't useful in any situation. Iowa bullied him, Tennessee watched him shoot as he went 0-7, and USC kept him so completely locked down that he didn't attempt a two point field goal. Dee has to do something when Semaj can't go. Too often, Xavier looked lost with Dee at the helm (his 34% turnover rate surely has something to do with that). Against the Trojans he didn't start and played only 16 minutes. Dee still has something to offer, but he's got to get things together, and fast.
5. Coaching- This one comes with a bit of a caveat, because a lot of college coaching is compiling talent. Coach Mack has been excellent at that and is now bringing in the best recruiting class in school history. Anyone currently calling for his head is a clueless overreactionary. That said, there are some questions to be asked.
James Farr has become an absolute monster on the glass and is making over 50% of his three point tries, but he's parlayed that 7.8/6.3/.3 into only one start and 15 minutes per game. It's not his defense either, because he's blocking 1.3 shots per game. Semaj Christon may have been felled with cramps against Iowa, and that may have been his fault, but he'd not had a rest at that point with the team up 15. Against Tennessee and USC, the Musketeers came out inexcusably flat and got buried before they even had a chance to get into the game. That is, without question, on the coach.
And then there is the free throw shooting. How much of that lies on the coaching staff? Players have to make the shots and there is precious little the coach can do once someone strides to the line. That, though, assumes all that can be done beforehand has been done. Again, if these guys are really just this bad from the line, that's on them, but if the coach isn't doing everything in his power to fix the problem in practice, some of the blame lies with him.
6. Costly errors- 17 turnovers per game, and 19 in two of them, only tells part of the story. Xavier ran another brilliant under the bucket play that got Matt Stainbrook a look to take the lead with 28 seconds to play against Iowa, but he missed. Justin Martin didn't even look before making the errant pass that sealed the USC loss, and Semaj Christon seemed determined to drive into as blind alleys as he could find at times. In short, this team played undisciplined and ugly basketball after those glorious first 28 minutes.
In summation, a lot went wrong when Xavier headed to their second straight Thanksgiving tournament. It's not hard to see this season as hanging over the precipice right now. BGSU and Evansville are in place to help cure the hangover, and maybe they will, but this team needs to get itself together right now. The embarrassment of being run out of the gym by a team as bad as USC has to wake some people up, or the CBI beckons again.
Apologies for the lack of coverage over the weekend. The disadvantage to family holidays is that everyone can get the same virus. Both Joel and I were stricken and, as a result, have easily avoided any of that pesky holiday weight so far.