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Xavier loses to St. John’s in a big Q1 road game

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Xavier did nothing well and lost a game that would have salted away a tournament place.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at St. John
Tonight’s game in one picture
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

What do you think is important to win a basketball game?

Is it defense? Xavier allowed 1.21 points per possession today, let St. John’s make 62% of their two point attempts, gave up seven dunks, and forced turnovers on only 14.3% of the Red Storm’s possessions. At no point in the last 30 minutes did Xavier look like getting enough stops to put together a run. No announcer was in any danger of ever having to mention kills tonight. One stop in a row felt like a lot.

Is it good offense? The Musketeers made 27.5% of their 40 three point attempts, many of which were wide open looks. X had a paltry 11 offensive rebounds of their 43 misses and shot just 41% from the floor for the game. Zach Freemantle (22/10/1) missed a wide open layup when Xavier desperately needed it and Adam Kunkel (5/1/2) caught the ball out of bounds not once, but twice. Xavier was excellent inside the arc, but only 33 shots from in there.

What about coaching? Travis Steele elected to play Xavier’s second fastest paced Big East game, and one after a long layoff, with essentially six players. There are 200 minutes available in a college basketball game. Bench players not named Colby Jones (20/6/0) played just 22 of them. Xavier’s attempts at zone were successful but sporadic. Kyky Tandy (3/0/2) came on, added a spark, and then vanished back to wherever he has been. Most glaringly, Steele fell victim to the old coaching trope of removing a player with two fouls in the first half and watched as St. John’s ran out to their winning margin with Paul Scruggs (14/6/6) anchored to the bench.

Maybe it’s effort? It should be noted here that Colby Jones is exempt from any effort related critique. He was all over the place all game. Zach Freemantle was not. Freemantle managed a good statline but was, when it mattered, butter soft. With X down seven and rallying, Nate Johnson (14/7/6) hit the floor at midline to tip a ball away. Paul Scruggs was on the hardwood in the ensuing scramble, as was another Musketeer. The ball rolled free to Freemantle, who bent gingerly at the waist and attempted to pluck the ball as if picking flowers. Predictably, it didn’t work. Then, Freemantle tried a left handed layup to cut it to five that he missed. After that he walked away from Rasheem Dunn with two seconds left on the shot clock and Dunn responded by sticking a dagger. If captains are supposed to set the example with effort, the one set by Freemantle tonight was not a positive one.

This was not a good game. Xavier did one thing well (score inside the arc), and they didn’t do that nearly enough. The defensive effort was shockingly bad for most of the game. Xavier’s starting backcourt shot 4-24 behind the arc. There will be complaints about the 40 threes X heaved up, but most of them were there for the taking. Not a lot of the threes were forced, most of them came in rhythm, but they simply did not fall. What could have been another Oklahoma level shooting effort turned into a parade of misses. St. John’s elected to live and die by letting the Musketeers shoot. Not many teams will survive letting Nate Johnson take 11 threes, but the Red Storm did.

Xavier isn’t in serious trouble yet. Q1 road losses to teams that were favored to win don’t do a lot of damage to a resume. Xavier is still very much a team trying to come back from an absurdly long break. That told tonight in a high-paced game. Still, this was an opportunity lost for the Musketeers. Anything better than shambolic defense and X walks out of the Carnesecca (which is the opposite of Hinkle in terms of places to play) with a Q1 win. Instead, the defense was utterly horrible. Coach Steele called the defense tonight an “absolute joke.” He’s right, and it’s up to him to fix it.