Xavier just lost a game at home in which they trailed by 18 with just over 5 minutes to go. Obviously, that’s not ideal. Despite that, it’s easy to make an argument that what we saw last night was either what we should have expected or even a performance with some encouraging signs. After all, Xavier had it at 2 at the half, closed the game on a 21-12 run, and were a very dodgy offensive foul call away from cutting the game to a single possession with under a minute to go.
There was one brutal stretch, a 16-2 run early in the second half, that cost Xavier the game. Within that run were not only the seeds to last night’s destruction, but also the keys to making this team dangerous in March. Let’s take a look.
At it’s most basic, the nuts and bolts of the team-wide absence seizure Xavier suffered look something like this: over the course of three and a half minutes, Wisconsin shot 7-7/2-2/0-0 while Xavier shot 1-7/0-4/0-0, got one offensive rebound, and promptly turned that over. Xavier stopped defending for seven possessions and couldn’t execute on offense as the game ran away.
This all comes down to known factors on this team.
First of all, Travis Steele - in his third game as a head coach - made a crucial error. After Xavier rode a 12-4 run back into the game with Quentin Goodin, Kyle Castlin, Naji Marshall, Ryan Welage, and - most critically - Zach Hankins on the floor, Steele went back with his starters to begin the second half. That meant Welage and Hankins out and Tyrique Jones and Paul Scruggs back in.
I don’t have anything against Jones or Scruggs and think they’re both good players, but the energy of Hankins and the floor spacing of Welage were apparently making something work for X. By the time Steele even had a chance to remedy the error - and he did so by inserting Welage and Hankins for Castlin and Jones - Xavier was down 10 and Wisconsin had the ball and momentum.
Faced with a mounting lead and opponent that added to it every time down the floor, Xavier’s offense lost its way. The possessions went as follows: missed 3 with 12 seconds left on the shot clock (Naji), missed jumper with 17 seconds left on the shot clock (Q), missed layup with 14 seconds left on the shot clock (Castlin), made layup with 8 seconds left on the shot clock (Tyrique, assist Scruggs), missed 3 with 11 seconds left on the shot clock (Q), missed 3 with 19 seconds left on the shot clock (Scruggs), and missed 3 with 7 seconds left on the shot clock (Welage).
That looks something like rising panic. Xavier rarely went deep into the shot clock to find a good shot. A team that is not good at shooting jumpers and plainly had the stronger, more athletic perimeter players settled for jump shots time and again. By the time the fog lifted, the game had gone.
Late on, there were a couple of things that could have gone better, namely that Xavier could have started fouling - especially Ethan Happ, who still sucks at free throws - much sooner. They also could have executed at the line much better in their own right.
Despite all that, Xavier basically lost that game in seven possessions in the second half. I know we can’t just throw those possessions out, and I know the result is immutable, but for the other 58 possessions, X outscored Wisconsin 66-61, and that is with plenty of mistakes scattered along the way. Even with that horrendous seven-possession stretch, Xavier had the ball in the net to cut the lead to three with 18 seconds left before the officials decided to nullify the bucket with an offensive foul call away from the ball.
This was the third game of the season for a team that’s 259th in the nation in minutes continuity playing against a team that is 16th in the nation in that same metric. This was the D1 equivalent of five strangers at the Y agreeing to run full court against five dudes who have been playing together in that gym since high school. Throw in the fact that this is Travis Steele’s third game as a head coach in his entire life, and it’s no wonder there are some growing pains involved.
Probably sometime later today, Brad will write an article about everything Xavier did wrong. He’ll make good and valid points, because you don’t look like X did last night without putting plenty of fodder out there for someone to break down. While you read that, though, keep this post in mind.
This is a team put together on the fly being led by a guy in the head seat for the first time in his life. Coach Steele will grow more confident and develop more guile; he’ll go with what he thinks will work and pull plenty of the right strings.
The players will continue to learn their strengths and the strengths of their teammates, and how to make those all come together for the good of the program.
Zach Hankins will continue to make friends.
Ryan Welage will continue to celebrate made threes like each of them won the World Cup.
Goodin, Scruggs, and Marshall will use their physical gifts to get into and through defenses more and settle for shooting over them less.
Kyle Castlin will keep making winning plays.
And Tyrique Jones will keep letting ‘em know with the meanest mug there is.
A season is a lifetime. This team is still taking its first, wobbling steps. You’ll want to be there when it finds a stride.