You should not be shooting meaningful free throws in buy game to start the season. These are tune ups in which you score 100, throw down some fun dunks, and remind the fans that basketball is back and is fun. Unless you are Xavier this year. In that case you need your senior guard to take a game over, you need a transfer to make four big free throws, and you suck the air right out of a building ready to go wild. If a win can be deflating, Xavier just pulled it off. And they made looking bad look easy.
It was probably a warning sign that Xavier started the game 4-5 behind the arc. With the wind in their sails, the Musketeers just couldn’t stop lifting from deep. They finished the game 8-27. Just in case that math is too hard or watching that game made you too drunk, that means they went 4-22 after that Icarusian first seven minutes. While you could be forgiven for thinking that shooting meant the game was already decided early, it wasn’t. Xavier did not make a two point basket until 7:40 to play in the first half. The team finished the game 13-29 inside the arc.
If this all seems a rather dreary way to start a recap of the first game inside a full Cintas in over 18 months, I can assure it is not. Xavier was flat in every way possible. They shot poorly, rebounded poorly in the first half, were outscored in the second half, and turned the ball over 13 times. That 13 turnovers, 13 assists, 15 fouls, and just 21 made baskets. Thank the good Lord above that Niagara is very bad at basketball, or this game would have been an all-timer in terms of season opening embarrassments. The last time Xavier played an opener this close was an 84-81 win over #115 Lehigh on November 11th of 2016. That season didn’t end until the Elite Eight. One can only hope that this game was an omen, not a harbinger of things to come.
Dwon Odom’s jumper is not fixed: This may seem a little mean, but a lot of Xavier’s success will revolve around this young man demonstrating that he’s at least capable of making the occasional three pointer. Any opposing coach who saw his leaning soccer throw in style airball in the first half will likely not be ripping up last year’s scouting report. Odom went for 2/2/0 tonight because Niagara saw no reason to pressure him on the ball. The one time they did, he scored. On the other hand, Jerome Hunter’s shot looks really nice and he went 1-8 from the floor, so maybe aesthetics aren’t everything.
Xavier (desperately) needs Zach Freemantle: Jack Nunge will likely turn into a real presence inside. Every time he has been healthy he has produced. Tonight it would be reasonable to say he looked like a guy trying to find his way. 7/4/1 isn’t awful, but it won’t make anyone forget the all Big East player sitting on the bench. Ben Stanley was a healthy (?) scratch, Cesare Edwards didn’t play, and Dieonte Miles flickered in and out of the game.
More concerningly, Xavier’s offense looked like it lacked a focal point. Paul Scruggs scored 17 and took the game over when he wanted it. Colby Jones scored 16 and looked decent. Both did most of their work freelance while the offense was content to rotate around the outside not doing a great deal of anything. That speaks to a lack of confidence in post options, a big missing piece, and some coaching work that needs done. It was painful to watch.
Xavier can afford very few more games like this: Kent State is a middling MAC team and Xavier can probably play poorly again and beat them. Not so with Ohio State, who will beat Xavier by 20 if they put forth this effort in nine days time. Norfolk State will go by the wayside, but there aren’t gimme games over Thanksgiving. Central Michigan, Ball State, and probably Morehead are all very likely wins, but those games are spread across two weeks that also include Oklahoma State and the Shootout. Xavier needs to get it together and get it together fast. This season was always going to be the one Travis Steele was graded on. The tests are apparently coming thick and fast.