I worked overnight and then had to go right to church. Since - unlike Naji Marshall - I actually need rest, a nap was in order before I got to watch the game. With shouts to Bry and Donnie for providing live coverage, here's what I got from the experience.
You can't dance with the champ
Our boys endured some tough stretches in the first half, falling down by nine and looking for a second like they were going to suffer the annual Villanova [butt] kicking once again. Then something clicked. A modest 16-10 run to close the half put Xavier within touching distance, where they stayed for the first 8 minutes of the second half. From down 44-41 with 12;41 left on the clock, they went on a stupefying 17-0 and held the visitors scoreless for over 9 minutes. By the time Joe Cremo made a layup to snap Nova's drought, Cintas was in full flight and the result was all but assured.
EASY MONEY ELI
Xavier is 8-2 in games in which Elias Harden gets at least 15 minutes of playing time. Today he got a career high 26, contributing 8 huge points in the second half run that swung the game in Xavier's favor and provided a spark off the bench. The game changes when he comes in. His energy was a huge part of the defensive lockdown in the second half. There's a place for this dude on this team, and that place is increasingly looking like the top six in the rotation.
Xavier is better when a press speeds them up
Everybody and his mom is going to try to get X out of sorts in high leverage situations. The Muskies have responded with mixed success (to say the least) in those circumstances, but they've been at their best when the ball pops quickly. When Xavier holds it and waits to get reads, turnovers ensue. When they make the first pass quickly and subsequent moves with an attacking mindset, Tyrique Jones puts people on posters.
This is a team on the rise
It has started on the defensive end, as Xavier had allowed 245 points in 268 possessions over the last 4 games, coming out to a raw defensive efficiency of .914 PPP. That's against three top-100 offenses and Providence, and Creighton and Nova are both top-25 offenses. The team that was down to 199th in the nation in defensive efficiency is now 124th. That's an incredible turnaround this late in the year.
On offense, it looks like they've found a focal point in the paint, and working inside out is really starting to pay off. Jones and Hankins have been irrepressible at times in the paint, and Naj, Q, and Scruggernuts have been driving the ball persistently and effectively. There have been a few times it has been just enough, but wins are wins at this stage.
Three in three at MSG is in play
From bottom of the conference at 3-8, Xavier is suddenly in position to play for a share of third place in the mid-week fixture at St. John's. Just as importantly, X showed they can punch with the top of the league on their current form. The auto bid is the only safe harbor for Xavier's tournament hopes, and today's performance makes that run seem more possible than ever.
Coach Steele is hitting a stride
In the first matchups against Creighton and Nova, Xavier was outscored by a total of 32 points and lost both. On the return legs, they went 2-0 by a margin of 15 points. The second half against Creighton looked like this team's defensive magnum opus until the second half against Villanova. It's almost like a guy with a grand total of no games of head coaching experience coming into the season has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds as he experiences a lot of things for the first time in the lead seat. One hopes that the more easily moved members of the Xavier fan base have had a bit of their confidence restored in the past couple of weeks.
This team still has some holes
I basically don't care about them right now though.