Xavier very nearly came all the way back and won last night. Despite trailing by 17 in the second half to what is likely one of the best 20 teams in the nation, the Musketeers had a good look to tie the game. Like so many of their good looks this year, it didn’t fall, but they had fought back into the game against odds that approached insurmountable with just five minutes to play. They did that thanks to, and in spite of, the things that are defining their season.
We’re starting with the most esoteric of these, and yet the one that everyone thinks they can or can’t perceive coming from their favorite team. Xavier’s immediate response to going down 17 was to go on a 7-0 run. Last season Xavier got whacked by Wisconsin in the second half and never made a run, surrendered a 19-2 second half run to SDSU, gave up a 13-2 run to Cincinnati late, capitulated against Missouri and, well, you get the idea.
This season Xavier hasn’t faced a great deal of adversity prior to visiting one of the prettiest cities in the old south. When faced with it thus far, they’ve risen to the occasion. Against UConn they staggered under a heavy blow from the Huskies but recovered to force overtime, then lost three of the Core Four to fouling out, and still found a way to win. Last night they put together 13-2 and 12-2 runs in the second half against an excellent defense to come scrapping their way back into a game they had no business being in. This team is tough.
Of course the idea of just “willing” yourself back into a game is asinine, you have to actually do something to make it happen. Against Florida, that something was a full court press and great defense when it mattered. The Gators still managed to become the first team to record a point per possession against Xavier, but they had to shoot 54% from the floor to do it. Xavier gambled that Andrew Nembhard, a terrible shooter, wouldn’t have a good enough night to beat them. He and Noah Locke came into the game shooting 30% from the floor and combined to go 10-18. That’s not going to happen often. Beyond that, Xavier forced a 23.5% turnover rate, allowed only five offensive rebounds, and mostly kept Florida off the line. A defensive effort like that against a team that isn’t so good, and doesn’t get two very improbable shooting nights, leads to a win.
Speaking of shooting, Xavier remains bad at it. Excluding Quentin Goodin, the Musketeers were 2-12 behind the arc last night. Florida didn’t have anyone Naji Marshall could beat off the dribble and, as his shot still isn’t falling, he went the last 32:25 of the game without scoring. Paul Scruggs put forth a warrior’s effort to score 24, but needed 22 shots to get it done. Bryce Moore didn’t look close on any of his three attempts and no one else even bothered to try. That left Q who, whisper it, is shooting 33% from deep and leading the team and Paul Scruggs as the only Musketeers to make threes.
Scruggs also made his usual assortment of elbow jumpers and baseline pull ups. Beyond that, every single one of Xavier’s made buckets was in the paint. Remove Scruggs and Goodin and no Musketeer made a basket from farther than six feet from the rim. With no one to stretch the defense at all, Florida frequently the ball entering the lane or block by dropping all five players below the free throw line. That left Tyrique Jones and Zach Freemantle precious little room to work and left Xavier with no offense for long stretches.
You can’t turn the ball over on 26% of your possessions and win often. Xavier has in fact only done it five times in the last three years, and twice it happened in buy games. Turn the ball over that much against a quality opponent and you are very likely to lose. Paul Scruggs spent significant time on the ball last night and turned it over six times. Despite his scoring, that netted him an offensive rating of 88. Dah Bishop’s two in five minutes also didn’t help the cause. Xavier isn’t good enough on offense right now to turn the ball over so consistently. Part of that was Florida’s defense, but part of it was just bad offense.
That’s not to say that every time Xavier threw the ball yesterday it was a bad thing. The Musketeers managed a 54.2% assist rate against that packed in defense. Naji Marshall made a beautiful running one handed pass to Q on the break and led the team with four assists. Jason Carter, whose defensive deficiencies were exposed, also managed four assists and only two turnovers in his time on the floor. The Musketeers were stagnant early in the year, but seem to have found their passing feet a bit now.
All told, Xavier is close. The mental toughness and defense are there, and the passing is coming. If the shooting gets even marginally better, shoot 33% last night and it’s a tie game, and the turnover tighten up, this team could be great.