The important thing to remember is that this win counts just as much as the prettiest of them. It was a lot of things, but it was a win that pushed Xavier to 5-1 in the Big East and kept them right on pace with Villanova and Creighton, one of whom will lose tonight. Xavier did ultimately leave Chicago with a win. The reason this recap starts with a disclaimer is the way Xavier played in the second half. A 50-32 lead was reduced to as few as six at one point while Xavier struggled to come up with ways to handle the defensive pressure that DePaul began to apply. While this game wasn't a loss, it laid the groundwork for future losses as any coach possessed of a set of eyes will notice how the Blue Demons rattled Xavier's guards with a very, very physical press and constant harassment of ball handlers.
"94th in the nation in forcing turnovers, 91st in getting steals, and 66th in block%. If underpinned by solid principles, those would be part of a very good defense. Instead, they are poor defensive rebounding team and are 224th in the nation in EFG% allowed." That's what Joel said when he ran the preview, and that's exactly what we saw today. Xavier shot 58% from the floor and scored almost at will when they had time to set offense. However, the Musketeers turned the ball over 21 times and let the Demons force them to play the game down in the mud. 13 of those turnovers were steals, which means Xavier just threw the ball away or some other "unforced" error on eight occasions. While that's normally not how you win basketball games, it will suffice when the other team shoots 42% from the floor, 26.7% from deep, and an abhorrent 58% from the line. As much as Xavier tried to lose this game, they couldn't because DePaul is just not very good at basketball.
In the first half Xavier rode the scoring of Semaj Christon (27/1/1), 19 points in the first, and Justin Martin (18/7/0), 14 points in the first, to a massive lead. While DePaul hassled the Musketeers into eight turnovers, they never were able to do much more than force X into scoring quickly. In the second half, that changed. Dee Davis (6/3/6) competed with foul trouble and, more importantly, very physical play and wasn't able to initiate the offense well. Brandon Randolph (8/0/0) played well if you only look at the stat line, but also struggled to get the ball into the frontcourt. Semaj turned it over five times, Martin four, and no one seemed capable of getting the ball forward. When Matt Stainbrook (6/8/4) dropped deep, there was no outlet.
So, with 5:50 to play DePaul was within seven despite shooting 37% from the floor in the second half. Xavier's defense was stout when allowed to set, but hopeless when the offense turned the ball over directly under the basket. Xavier went on a 9-1 run after DePaul came their closest to put the game away. Even though that gave the Musketeers a 15 point lead, they still coughed the ball up two more times in the last 3:27 to let the Demons narrow the final deficit to ten. It was an ugly 20 minutes of basketball, and if you want to spend more time dwelling on it, you're a better man than I.
- Can Dee match up? Dee didn't play badly on defense, but this won't be a game he scrapbooks. He managed 32 minutes despite being limited by the four fouls that he accrued. It should be noted that Xavier was called for 25 fouls in 40 minutes, and off the ball defenders rely a lot on their hands. Dee couldn't handle Billy Garrett Jr. when he had him today, but defenders have days like this.
- Is JMart for real this time? Unlike Joel's Russian imp, Martin held up well under the scrutiny during the first half, burying threes, hammering the glass, and in general looking like a great player. Then, in the second half, he went 17 minutes without attempting a shot. Still, a 4-6/3-5/7-9 shooting line speaks to his willingness to get the ball and use it late in the game. With under five to play and the game sort of in the balance, Martin recorded two straight steals and went 5-6 from the line. He also attacked the rim on a runout after his teammates had been quailing from contact. Yes, Justin Martin set the physical tone and got very aggressive.
- What will the refs do? Blow their whistles a lot. I watched this game in a warm room with the volume down and nearly fell asleep due to the incredibly slow pace of play. It's amazing that in a game in which one team is desperate to run and the final score features 154 points you can spend long stretches of time bored, but today anyone watching this was. Once again, it was touch on the outside and THIS IS SPARTA! in the paint. The officials absolutely have to get their act together, because there is nothing so annoying as watching someone get thrown across the floor on one end and hear no whistle and then see something be called on the other end because the defender has started the five second count. It's awful.
This game wasn't exciting in the least, despite DePaul trying to make a run. The choppy stop-start feel thanks to the whistle and the tiny crowd (not even 7,000) were large factors in that, but the simple fact is that the game was donw at halftime. Xavier came out in the second half knowing it would take a miracle to lose, and that's exactly how they played. It's hard to fault a team for knowing it has a game won, but playing with a lead is just as much as skill as making incredible comebacks. Xavier's guards, especially, weren't comfortable with a team trying to force them into errors by chasing them for 92 feet. At the end of the game, Coach Mack clapped contentedly and walked away. That won't be the case if a ten point lead turns into a loss.
I'm inclined to be hard on Dee because Joel loves him so much and we're brothers, but I'm really starting to like the way the kid plays. He was aggravated by the refs, pounded on screen after screen, and harried all over the place, but he still only turned the ball over three times against his six assists. Frequently, Dee exhorted his teammates to slow down and try to regroup, and I think that his calming presence went a long way to keep Semaj locked in and carrying the load. He and Christon really seem to have a good understanding with one another, and Dee knows his role is complimentary.
Finally, I love James Farr (4/5/0). He didn't shoot well today, and he attempted two layups that will end up on a blooper reel somewhere, but Farr has the kind of swagger that teams need. While Myles Davis (one assist from the trillion in just six minutes) has clearly locked up, Farr desperately wants and needs to be shooting the ball. It's fun to watch.
Tweet of the game:
@BannersParkway Utterly ridiculous.— Chris Green (@CGreen_23) January 20, 2014
Chris was talking about the officiating, but he really could have meant anything that happened after the second half started. On to the next.