This looked, at first, like more of the same. Xavier came out of the blocks slowly, taking ten minutes to score ten points. Against one of the top offenses in the nation, that seemed likely to doom them. How could this team, supposedly so poorly coached, allegedly lacking in development, a team whose more fickle fans had already relegated it to the bubble, possibly compete here?
Quite simply, by playing how they started to just two days prior. The Seton Hall loss was a building block. After that game Travis Steele said he felt as if he had his team back. Even in a scrappy first ten minutes last night, that was clear. Exhorted by their increasingly frenetic, and amusingly vulgar, coach, the Musketeers grabbed hold of UConn and didn’t let go. Rather than run away with the game, the Huskies ran into a white wall. Xavier dug in on defense and gave UConn no room. Adama Sanogo couldn’t get going and cut an increasingly frustrated figure, RJ Bell was largely peripheral. There would be no 15 point deficit this time. A slow start? Maybe, but only on one end.
Indeed, there would be a first half lead. Zach Freemantle was almost comically ineffective, leaving a variety of floaters and half hooks just short. Nate Johnson, however, was rousing himself from slumber. Nate’s general disposition on life leaves him with few detractors, but those few were loudly wondering what he offered when his shot wasn’t falling. Johnson answered that question with active and aggressive defense and a sudden willingness to put the ball on the deck and go to the rim. “Nate is being a basketball player,” enthused Byron Larkin. A one trick pony? No, a player determined to keep wringing the very most out of his talent.
But one half does not a win make. We’ve been told, frequently fairly, time and again that this team cannot play a full game. Maybe that’s on them, maybe that’s on the coach, maybe that’s what happens when you move from the Atlantic 10 to the most consistently excellent basketball conference in the nation. UConn hammered back at Xavier with a 9-2 run right when it looked like the Musketeers were drawing away. The Musketeers didn’t flinch this time, didn’t recoil and shrink out of the game. Instead they threw the ball to Jack Nunge, watched Zach Freemantle shape shift back into a good player, and roared back. Can’t play 40? It took 2,400 seconds to beat the Huskies last night.
Speaking of roaring, the orange clad student section was elite all night long.
But what about not being able to win big games? After all, we’ve been assured, Xavier hasn’t beaten anyone that matters since November. Ignore the 16 wins, ignore the six conference wins in the Big East, ignore top 25 rankings in every metric that matters, just trust something you can’t measure, that will tell you where this team is going. Don’t be objective, don’t be empirical, just react. And #fireSteele.
Where this team is going, barring the truly spectacular, is the NCAA tournament. UConn was another Q1 win. Xavier is top 10 in the nation in top quadrant wins. They have more than UCLA or Ohio State, and they are tied with Villanova, Gonzaga, and Duke. The Musketeers are not without their problems but they are, at their base, a very good team. A team that can beat anyone on their day.
So maybe it isn’t time to throw in the towel or start looking at Bubble Watches. Maybe it’s time to recognize that this is a good but occasionally flawed team that looks for all the world like it is going dancing. Maybe it’s just time to enjoy the ride.