Whatever is your least favorite thing about this Xavier team was on full display Saturday against DePaul. It might not have cost Xavier the game in isolation, but it definitely combined with everyone else’s least favorite things to leave Xavier on the wrong end of a very winnable game.
Maybe it’s slow starts. By the first media timeout, Xavier had just one point. It took the Muskies almost 6 minutes to score their first field goal. At that point, the bucket closed the gap to 5-3, as Xavier’s defense had been almost as good as their offense was incompetent. That didn’t last; DePaul scored on 10 of their next 12 trips down the floor, and Xavier continued running in sand. With 5 minutes left on the clock in the first half, the score was 28-15 in favor of the visitors. X had managed just a point a minute and was just shy of getting doubled up at home by one of the worst teams in the league.
Maybe it’s the inability to make three-point baskets, a vital skill in modern basketball. That was actually a semi-bright spot for Xavier. They shot 6-17 (35.3%) from behind the arc as a team. Paul Scruggs was 4-8 on his own; the rest of the team was 2-9. Nate Johnson continued to cut a frustrated figure, shooting 0-1 from behind the arc, passing up shots he hunted in the past, and playing just 10 minutes in total. Adam Kunkel was 1-4 from deep. Unless you think Paul Scruggs is going to continue to shoot 50% from behind the arc, this is still a problem.
Maybe you’re vexed by the inability to execute seemingly simple things. Xavier shot just 9-16 (56.3%) at the rim. That’s barely over a coin toss on what should be the easiest baskets in the game. They also surrendered 13 buckets at the rim - including 6 dunks - to DePaul. X shot 11-16 from the line and missed two crucial front ends in the second half; DePaul was a bloodless 8-9, including 3-3 from Nick Ongenda, who came into the day well under 40% in league play. On the whole, Xavier shot just 18-37 from inside the arc and allowed DePaul to shoot 23-37.
For all of that, Xavier still should have won the game. After falling down 13, they clawed back to within 7 at the half thanks to a modest 10-4 run spurred by 5 points and 2 assists from Paul Scruggs. The Muskies came out of the half continuing the best basketball they played on the day, eventually putting together a 17-2 run that straddled the break and put the team up 41-36. In 11 trips down the floor, they got 10 stops and allowed 2 points. It looked like they had once again flipped the switch they’ve found so frequently this year and were setting up to pull away from DePaul.
It wasn’t to be. They followed that stretch with some of the worst basketball they’ve played all year, and it brings me no joy to report that Paul Scruggs was the main culprit. First he dribbled into a cul-de-sac, got surrounded by Blue Demons, and coughed the ball up in the absence of any viable options. Two points to DePaul. Then he threw a lazy pass across the top that DePaul turned into another easy bucket. Four-nil run, momentum surrendered. Freemantle then had a hook shot rattle out, Jerome Hunter turned the ball over, and Paul Scruggs missed a three. With 13:15 remaining, Xavier was on a 17-2 run and up 41-36. Two minutes and twenty-four seconds of game time later, they had coughed up 13 straight points and were down 7.
It would be 10 minutes until they again had the ball with a chance to tie. Everything that has had fans concerned about a top-25 team with a solid resume was on display during that time. When they got stops, they couldn’t back them up with baskets on the other end. When they scored, they couldn’t get enough stops to make it could. They weren’t able to execute from the line. They couldn’t defend the glass.
At home, in a game that should have been a walkover, Xavier looked like a team without an identity.
Xavier basketball is a dichotomy this year, and it plays out in bold letters on Twitter during and after every game. Last night, there were fans urging patience and perspective battling with fans who want to fire the coach and bench all the players. Both were right.
One camp pointed out that Xavier is still 28th in WAB, 27th in the KenPom, and 16-6 overall. With 4 of the next 5 games falling into quad 1, there are opportunities to be had. They’re correct; if you took away the name and the way we got here and just did a blind resume, you’d concede you were looking at a sure tournament team. If you had offered Xavier fans this position in October, I think most would have taken it. There is a very real perspective from which this is not at all a team in crisis.
Others noted that Xavier has shot well exactly twice since they took 17 days off because of competitors having covid, has been treading water (at best) for a month, and lacks a reliable go-to guy. In the time since the covid pause, Xavier hasn’t played like a top 25 team; according to Bart Torvik, they’ve barely been in the top 100. Opportunities to grab big wins look a lot like chances to get bludgeoned if you’re not capable of showing up and making a game of it.
What Xavier is from here is unknown; a fan’s view on it is largely a matter of perspective. What is objective reality is that, in the face of a game Xavier needed to win against an opponent they should have had no trouble beating, the fire they’ve been playing with all Big East season finally burnt them. By the time X realized they were in a game, they were too far out of it to turn things around.