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Another win, more questions

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Xavier got the exact win Ken Pomeroy predicted. In doing so they created another ink blot for their fans.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Xavier
This was great to see
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier basketball has recently become something of a traveling Rorschach test. Every time the Musketeers take the floor they present their fans with a performance that appears different to everyone. A win, but with difficulty. A loss, but with a stirring comeback. Shots falling, but with problems elsewhere. Good ball security, but with dreadful shooting. X has become a swirl of ink on the basketball court, performance art sussing out the deeper psychology of those who watch them.

Against St. John’s, in a win that went exactly to KenPom’s 75-67 prediction, there was so much good to find. KyKy Tandy (12/2/2) was aggressive with the ball, attacked the defense, and hunted his shot. As more three pointers went down, you could watch Tandy’s confidence grow. Byron Larkin praised him on the radio broadcast for consistently trying to penetrate the defense rather than being content to play in front of it on the perimeter. Like a soccer striker always running behind the lines, Tandy was constantly challenging the defense. Look at this ink blot, it looks like a star being born.

Farther down the page in a more confusing swirl of ink is the performance of Dontarious James (6/8/2). James was, suddenly, unexpectedly, excellent last night. James had played 10 minutes since Thanksgiving and only 49 on the season before playing 26 last night. After back to back dreaded DNP-Coach’s Decision, DJ gave Xavier value that his 93 ORtg doesn’t begin to encapsulate. Against a great offensive rebounding team, James raked in seven defensive boards, second most of anyone in the game. He played with energy and confidence. If you squint long enough at this, can you see a deep bench?

Xavier’s defense increasingly has no ambiguity. The Musketeers choked off SJU to the tune of .89 points per possession. The Red Storm missed 45 shots last night and never came close to a permanent solution to Xavier’s defensive effort. There is no question here, everyone looks and sees an elite defense.

But what do you see when you look at 25.3%? That’s Xavier’s turnover rate in this game. The Musketeers shot the ball well (52% inside the arc, 33% from deep) but only averaged a single point per possession because an alarming number of possessions ended 80 feet from Xavier’s basket in the waiting arms of a St. John’s player. Once the ball was in the half court X assisted on 68% of their made buckets, an elite number. Naji Marshall (20/8/3) scored and shot well, but threw the ball to the wrong team eight times. Xavier struggled to get through the front third of the SJU press. It’s not hard to see in a this a flaw that can turn fatal in an instant.

Jason Carter (0/5/1) still looks overwhelmed at times. 14 minutes, two turnovers, and no real highlights led to an ORtg of 40 and a forgettable game for the big man from Ohio. In terms of forgettable, it’s possible to not remember Bryce Moore played last night. He came in, played two minutes, turned the ball over twice, and never came back on. More looking here and you might see a shrinking bench.

Quentin Goodin represents maybe the ultimate smear on the paper for Xavier fans. Do you see 1-8 from the floor and 0-6 behind the arc? Or do you see 6-6 from the line to ice the game and 8/2/5 and only one turnover in 32 minutes? Was Goodin a confident hand on the ball while his teammates decompensated, or a guy who didn’t realize his shooting stroke had abandonded him? Every game he plays, every fan sees something a little bit different.

Finally, Xavier’s free throw shooting suggests not so much an ink blot test as players who have spent too much time staring at a Magic Eye poster. The Musketeers got to the line 34 times, excellent against this opponent, but only made 64.7% of those attempts. Subtract Naji’s 5-6 and Q’s perfect line and the team shot 50%. Tyrique Jones (12/12/0) was generally great but was 2-5 from the line. Paul Scruggs (14/4/2) was 4-7, as was Don James. Even the usually excellent Zach Freemantle (3/4/0) was 1-3.

So when you look at Xavier, what do you see? Is this a team that keeps racking up wins with tenacious defense that just needs to hit stride? Is it a team getting deeper with two youngsters breaking out? Or is this a squad with potentially fatal flaws that hamper their performance in games they should walk away with? What are the Xavier Musketeers?