Are you not entertained? The self-styled college of the whole state, one of many state schools in Ohio, but the team that declares themselves the one that all Ohioans should support, the university with the biggest superiority complex in the nation deigned to come down the freeway to take on the perpetual underdogs. From the first moment, the Buckeyes must have felt the trap closing as the Cintas swelled with noise around them. By the end it was not an arena that the Buckeyes were coming down to, it was a river. Paul Scruggs, the vicious, snarling, never stopping, beating heart of the Xavier Musketeers was waiting there to deliver the baptism.
How do you like your basketball teams? If finesse and three point shooting, endless screens, and beautiful arcing jumpers are your thing, might I suggest that this Xavier team is not for you. The Musketeers finished 5-24 behind the arc and for long stretches it felt like that number flattered them. Pretty basketball is fun, it’s sexy, and sometimes it wins.
How do you like your basketball teams? If a screaming bank of students and a relentlessly attacking team are your style, if you want a team that plays like a boxer that stands there and gets hit, then smiles back and throws a hammer of their own, might I suggest this Xavier team is for you. The Musketeers took a 2-0 lead and never trailed. They were never tied. Ohio State came out of the half and immediately cut into the lead. The Buckeyes drew within three late. Every time they made a run, Xavier stepped back, collected themselves, and threw back something built in the Big East. This was a game for grown men.
Colby Jones (7/12/3) was one of those. Early in the game Joel pointed out on Twitter that Jones was waving off help on EJ Liddell. That would be the EJ Liddell, OSU big man, who entered the game highly hyped and touted. He was matched against an undersized Xavier forward who was duly unimpressed. Sound familiar? Chris Holtmann schemed early in the second half to get Liddell on someone else. It worked and he seemed primed to explode. Coach Travis Steele (who outcoached Holtmann all night) schemed back to get Colby back on him. Liddell never got going. As the game grew, he shrank.
And what about Jack Nunge (14/14/0)? Still not fully fit, trying to put back together a career derailed by injury and tragedy, Xavier’s seven footer came to play. Dieonte Miles (2/0/0) was, perhaps, too in the moment and committed three bad fouls. Nunge isn’t supposed to have to play big minutes this year, but he racked up 32 in Xavier’s biggest game so far. Faced with Ohio State’s vaunted front line, he was the best big on the floor. He finished 5-8 inside the arc, 4-8 from the line, and still standing when Zed Key and Liddell faltered around him.
Adam Kunkel (10/1/4) hasn’t found his stroke, but he was at his Kunkelian best tonight. There was no rebound he didn’t contest, no defensive assignment he didn’t want, no open man he didn’t find. Dwon Odom (8/0/1) doesn’t have a stroke but he does have a blistering first step. When Xavier’s offense stagnated in the middle of the second half, he went to the rim. The next time he touched the ball, he went to the rim again. There would be no let down, no blinking here. Nate Johnson (12/3/2) was a hyperactive defensive menace who showed signs his stroke is coming back. When OSU tried to the 2-3 zone to some effect, it was Johnson getting open and jarring a corner three that pulled them out of it.
Coach Travis Steele had a great night as well. When everyone expected Dieonte Miles to guard Liddell, he went with Colby Jones on isolation instead. The decision paid off handsomely, as Xavier’s more athletic guards and forwards destroyed the Buckeyes on the glass. Xavier collected 40% of their misses and 71% of Ohio State’s. When Holtmann worked Liddell open, Steele worked back closed. When the Buckeyes went 2-3 zone, Steele used an unofficial timeout to reconfigure his offense and get a high post game working. Two wide open looks (and one make) later, OSU was back in the man to man they knew they couldn’t play.
Finally, Paul Scruggs. Scruggs is the last remaining tie to Xavier’s best teams ever, he plays with a foot still in the time of Zip Em Up. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and his thoughts written across his face. Tonight, he demonstrated that there are very much still gangsters in the home locker room. With 3:13 to play tonight and Xavier clinging to a one possession lead for the first time since 12:00 to play in the first half, Scruggs went to work. He had struggled until then, but it didn’t matter. It was winning time. Enter Sandman was playing, and Xavier’s closer had finished warming up.
First it was a drive and dish to Jack Nunge for a dunk. Ohio State answered, but no matter, Scruggs was hardly finished. He left his man with a stagger step and went left for a high arcing layup. The camera cut to him when he ran past and he had the look of a man intensely focused. An Ohio State and one cut it back to four after some Nunge free throws, so Paul abandoned his man again for another layup. The Buckeyes hit a three to make it 65-62.
This was the time, this was when 5-24 would cripple the team, this is when all the missed opportunities would finally tell, Xavier Nation sucked in a collective breath, and Paul Scruggs called for the ball on a beautifully executed action set up by Coach Steele. A Nunge screen. Open space. Paul Scruggs gathered his moment and rose. EJ Liddell, the media golden boy, the focus of all the hype, the opponent’s best player, rose to meet him. When it was over, only one roaring body emerged back above the water. Time was left on the clock, but the killer had spoken.