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Good coaches make tough calls

Being supportive is only part of being in charge; sometimes you have to be the bad guy.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Xavier
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of anecdotes to get this one rolling.

When I was a kid - probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 or 8 years old - the beloved border collie that had been in our family longer than I had was plainly in failing health. As much as I wanted to deny it, the end was coming. The day after Christmas, I woke up to my mom - not a woman given to emotional expression - tearfully explaining to me that the time has come while I was at rest. My dad had called a farmer friend of his to come over and help him do the decent thing.

Two days ago, Xavier was down 10 with just under 2 minutes to play. With the game in desperation time, X ran an action that ended with Zach Freemantle wide open in the corner. He was 0-4 from behind the arc in the game and is under 25% in Big East games in his career. The result was somehow both predictable and disappointing.

Xavier's flaws are fairly evident at this point in the season. Leaving aside whether or not Nate Johnson will be at anything resembling full strength again in Xavier colors, the team and its component players struggle in fairly predictable areas on a consistent basis. Paul Scruggs has a tendency to over penetrate and end up at a dead end or with an outright turnover. Colby Jones dribbles in circles through the lane and frequently finishes with the physical toughness of room temperature butter. Zach Freemantle is an excellent scorer from about 10 feet and in who spends way too much time hunting shots 22 feet from the basket. Et cetera, et cetera.

These are all remediable problems. The question is whether or not they'll be remedied. Travis Steele and Paul Scruggs have spent almost 150 games together at this point; Steele has to love Scruggs like a son. But when Steele says the team plays better in the second half because the offense is running towards the end where Steele stands and that allows him to have more control, something is off. If a player who has the most games in program history under his belt can't keep things ticking over for 20 minutes because the coach is 50 feet away instead of 5, should he have the ball in his hands in crunch time?

This is not to single out Scruggs. Freemantle needs to stop trying to be Dirk and work with his back to the basket. Colby needs to create space and finish through contact rather than orbiting the rim until the shot clock compels him to do something else.

What it comes down to - and what this season and Steele's employment may come down to - is Steele's ability to look someone he cares about in the eyes and take away something they love. Cesare Edwards waits with bated breath for a chance to go throw his body around in the paint. Dwon Odom and Adam Kunkel want the bit in their teeth in moments big and small. The team might be better served if those guys get some more chances, but to make that happen, Steele will have to take those chances away from the players who currently hold them.

The roster waits to see what the consequences for starting slow, failing to finish off halves, dribbling the spots off the ball, taking bad shots, failing to body opponents on the glass, and so on are. It's up to Steele to deliver them. It's not easy, but neither are a lot of jobs that don't see nearly the same compensation. If the head man can't step up and right the ship, the bubble beckons.