Last night, Xavier beat IUPUI 82-69 last night. (Joel and Donnie provided complete coverage of the game). While the end result left a bit to be desired, that wasn’t the most unsettling thing about the scene that unfolded at the Cintas last night. For long stretches of the game, Xavier didn’t look like Xavier.
Some of that is down to personnel turnover. Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, Sean O’Mara, and Kaiser Gates were all pillars of the team for the last several years. Kerem Kanter came in last year and wove himself into the tapestry right away. None of those guys were on the court last night. Any Xavier fan tuning in five minutes into the game and seeing skinny Tyrique (17/6/1) and no Q could be forgiven for doubting if they’d turned on the right game.
Xavier also lacked an immediate focal point, or even discernible plan for long stretches, on offense. Tre wasn’t curling off screens, JP wasn’t driving and antagonizing, it was very different. Naji Marshall (13/4/7) shot 13 times but looked like a guy who has been sick and who also is not quite sure how to be a star yet. Formerly a third or fourth option, Naji wasn’t quite ready to step into the leading man role. Perhaps 13/4/7 isn’t a line to complain about, but Xavier’s going nowhere if Marshall doesn’t grab a starring role.
The same could be said of Paul Scruggs (5/6/4). Near the end of last year he was full of swagger and gigantic sneering smiles. Last night, he looked another player uncertain how he fit into a team not led by bona fide stars. Is he a secondary option? If so 5/6/4 isn’t bad. Is he another guy who has to make a big jump this season? If so, he and Naji combining for half of Xavier’s turnovers and Paul committing five fouls in just 24 minutes won’t get the job done.
For about 26 minutes Xavier looked like they might mess around and, instead of getting triple double, take an L on opening night. Apathy isn’t the right word, every Musketeer looked like he cared but wasn’t quite sure how to apply that pathos. Usually defense is where a team in a malaise can dig out, but in Zach Hankins (6/7/0, unforgivably bad hair) and Ryan Welage (24/7/2) Xavier has two guys who are all effort and very little return on that end of the floor. IUPUI somehow score well enough for most of the game to stay relevant.
All of the newness wasn’t all bad, though. Kyle Castlin (9/8/1) steadied the ship early in the second half while playing out of position at the point and attacked the glass like a 6-4 menace. Hankins, despite the unquestionable of possibly the worst hair in Xavier history, worked himself into good positions and looks likely to have an impact once he shakes the jitters of his first D1 games. Elias Harden (6/1/1) is notably more muscular than he was and played defense well enough to be on the court for nearly half of the game.
Xavier may not have looked like their venerable selves last night, but when it mattered a Musketeer stepped. Ryan Welage came billed as a moderately efficient stretch scorer. What it turns out he is, at least for one night, is a killer with the face of a baby. With Xaver fans shifting in seats and sneaking glances at a clock that was inexorably ticking toward a disaster, the rail thin kid with the hair of a preacher’s son absolutely went off, scoring 15 straight and 21 of 24 for Xavier.
The Musketeers may have looked a bit disjointed last night, but class still wins games. For nearly ten minutes Welage carried Xavier, demonstrating both that he can get his shot off when everyone knows it’s coming and that he’s more than just a shooter. Xavier looked disorientatingly different last night, but the end result was the same. It may take awhile to get it all rolling, but glimmers of a method were evident last night. It’s going to be hard to get used to, but basketball is back, and Xavier is winning.