I'm of two minds on this game, and I really couldn't decide which was correct. For that reason, here are both recaps that could have been written after tonight's game:
Recap One: The positive one
In the tale of the Spartans at Thermopylae, a smaller force of 1,100 Greeks marches into history by heroically holding off a much larger enemy force for three days.The Greeks who fought at the Hot Gates have been immortalized for what they did.* Ultimately though, they lost, and they lost convincingly. For all the romanticism their stand inspires, it was all for naught.
The Xavier Musketeers embarked on much the same kind of conquest this evening. Facing the very best team in the Big East and one of the best in the nation, the Musketeers put up the kind of fight that should make their supporters proud to be associated with the program. Missing the man who keys their offense and leads the defense and facing a team that dismantled them the last time they met, Xavier fought indefatigably to the bitter end tonight, Despite trailing by 12 with just over a minute left, the Musketeers never packed it in.
Xavier actually led this game, which is more than can be said for the last time they faced Villanova. It wasn't a blazing start, but the Musketeers pulled out to a 7-0 lead in the game. Unfortunately, the Wildcats bombed their way back into the game behind Ryan Arcidiacono's hot early shooting and then took a 19-18 lead behind a three from Darrun Hillard, who scored 15 in the first half.
Unwilling to just wilt away, Xavier fought back. After going down four, the Musketeers regained the lead at 26-24 when Myles Davis (3/0/2) canned a three with 6:48 remaining in the first half. Villanova turned pressure into points from there on, and went into the halftime break with a 41-36 lead.
After the break, the Wildcats tried to put the game to bed. A quick 5-0 run took the crowd out of the game and put Xavier down 10 with 15 minutes to play. Once again though, the Musketeers clawed their way back. Semaj Christon (18/2/6) tried to take the game over but ran into a packed defense that was waiting for him to drive. So, on consecutive possessions, he found spot starter Jalen Reynolds (6/6/0) for buckets. Still, Villanova was holding a ten point and looking they were on cruise control with 10 minutes to play.
But Xavier rallied again. By the four minute mark the lead was down to five after an Isaiah Philmore (15/4/0) make at the line. The Musketeers just would not go away. Justin Martin (20/6/1) had scored the and one right before Philmore split his free throws to give the crowd a bit of hope. Unfortunately, a Villanova 9-2 run followed that and sent a lot of fans heading for the parking lots.
Xavier, however, was not yet going gently into that good night. Down 12 with 1:35 to go, they came storming back one more time. Philmore made two more free throws and then two Dee Davis (8/3/2) threes cut the lead to six in the span of just 30 seconds. After Nova sputtered at the line, Semaj managed to cut the lead to three with 20 seconds left before the Wildcats were finally able to ice the game. Down their big man and with their backs against the wall, Xavier had very nearly shocked the Big East champs.
Recap Two: The negative one
Ignore anyone who tells you that Xavier fought the good fight tonight or that this was somehow a moral victory in the face of overwhelming odds. Ignore the people that tell you a win was never likely and that this showing, without Matt Stainbrook, is a good sign going forward. Those people are all wrong. This was Xavier throwing away a game that they should have won. Now, they face an uphill struggle to just get into the NCAA tournament.
This one was bad from the very start. Villanova's early woes masked it, but Xavier was vulnerable on the perimeter from the word go. Far from showing the mildly improved defense of the last couple of weeks, the Musketeers got absolutely shredded on the perimeter today. By the time Arcidiacono had made his second three pointer off of an offensive rebound just six minutes into the game, Nova had already attempted five threes. For the game, they managed 22 and they knocked down nine of them. The Wildcats once against punished Xavier for consistently allowing a team to play the lottery.
But that was hardly the most galling of the statistics about three pointers. No, that would have to be the 6-24 that the Musketeers put up from behind the arc. We've stated many times that teams control opponents three point attempts far more than they do opponents three point percentage, and it was clear that Villanova was content to run the risk of letting Xavier shoot from deep. Prior to the Musketeers lipsticking the pig by making 3-6 after the game was out of reach, they were an appalling 3-18 behind the arc. Unless you are scoring literally at will in the paint, that number will only add up to you losing a basketball game.
Make no mistake, this game wasn't as close as it actually seemed late. Even at 73-70 mark, Villanova still held a 96% mathematical chance of hanging on for the win. The last time Xavier had even a 20% chance was when they trailed 49-42. For all intents and purposes, this game was over when the lead touched ten for the first time. That's where Xavier's inability to make a three pointer really hurt them. Going 0-10 in the second half when the game was still in the balance put the Musketeers in a hole that it was simply too easy to shovel dirt into.
So, comebacks and fun stories aside, this boils down to yet another loss where Xavier failed to defend the arc and failed to get any offense of their own from deep. Blessedly, the Musketeers limited turnovers or another 81-56 might have been in the cards. With Matt Stainbrook still day to day and the defense still a shambles, the Big East tournament begins to look like a bridge too far.
I'm not sure which of those accurately tells the story of the game, or if they both do. No matter how you want to look at it though, Xavier now needs at the very least one more win to have a chance of snagging an at large bid into the NCAA tournament. Right now, X is simply waiting to see who they will play next Thursday when they take the floor in the Madison Square Garden.
- How will Jalen perform? Reynolds' stat line isn't superficially impressive, but the freshman wasn't bad tonight. Xavier was chasing the game a lot, which meant he only got four shots. He converted three of those, stayed out of foul trouble, threw down a lob, and generally didn't do anything to make anyone think that he isn't capable of a monster game at any moment.
- Who will share the load on offense? A lot of credit has to go to Isaiah Philmore for doing his level best to score a bit more tonight. When you aren't programmed to be an offensive force it can be hard to get into rhythm, but Philmore tried. Yes, his 360 spin, fadeway, 15 footer was wide right at a very bad time, but he had a solid game. Justin Martin was excellent and remains Xavier's only consistent outside threat, and Semaj tried to take on the game on a night where he wasn't locked in. It's just hard to adapt to such a vital piece of the offense going missing against such an incredibly good defense.
- Can Xavier slow Nova down? In the negative recap I mentioned that Xavier got hammered from deep again, and that is true. By the same token, they came in and faced a team that lives behind the arc. The Musketeers turned Nova over on 20% of their possessions and held them below their season average offensive rebound rate. It wasn't the best defensive effort of the season, but it wasn't terrible either. Cautious optimism may be the takeaway here.
Tweet of the Game:
First, apologies for our Twitter feed being a little lax tonight. Joel was balling out (or whatever guys approaching 30 do) and I was stuck at work. That didn't keep Thom Tobias from hitting us with thoughts that most of Xavier Nation was probably echoing:
If Myles Davis takes another fking 3 I'm going to lose it! @BannersParkway
— TLT (@thee_thomtobias) March 7, 2014
*They've also been the subject of 300, one of the most idiotic and infantile films of all time.