Xavier’s defense has been repeatedly highlighted as their weak point as a team this season. Creighton’s has been their calling card. Tonight, after surviving the worst defensive half of the season last night, Xavier hassled, hustled, and harassed Creighton’s sharpshooting offense to near anonymity and carved up the best defense in the Big East behind a surgical performance from Souley Boum and an all out assault of the offensive glass by Jack Nunge, Colby Jones, and Jerome Hunter. Xavier came out like a team with a mission and completely dismantled a team that will have realistic aspirations of still playing games two weeks from now.
The defense showed its teeth
Make no mistake about it, a team that spent most of this year winning in spite of their defense came out and won this game because of their defense. In the first half, the 3rd place finisher in the Big East at the Garden looked like a buy game. X forced 11 turnovers and scored 17 points off them. Creighton shot 10-27 from the floor and got back a grand total of three of their misses. While some of the Bluejays travails were self imposed, Xavier also created 7 live ball turnovers in the opening 20 minutes due to their energetic, swarming presence on the defensive end. Arthur Kaluma was the only Creighton player to play more than 6 minutes and not turn the ball over. Although the second half only featured 2 turnovers, X still held Creighton to 11-29 shooting and 4 offensive rebound. Simply put, Xavier came up against one of the top 25 offenses in the country and totally shut them down. If this is the level Xavier can get to defensively, we may be in for a lot of basketball this March.
Desmond Claude is not going to be good, he is good
Xavier’s Big East All-Freshman performer was an absolute whirlwind tonight. His line of 11/2/0 on 4-10 from the floor doesn’t even begin to express how immense his impact on the game was tonight. Claude had 4 steals on the evening, was aggressive and persistent in getting into the teeth of the Creighton defense without turning the ball over, and was key into keeping Trey Alexander and Baylor Scheierman from having the impact they did in Omaha. Tonight Xavier’s depth was going to be tested against a team that hoped they could wear the Musketeers out. Claude outscored Creighton's bench by himself, matched them in rebounds, and was a defensive disruptor that helped nullify the Bluejays offensive stars.
Souley Boum is ridiculous
It is almost becoming unremarkable at this point to see Xavier’s First Team Big East guard spend the night tormenting the opposing defense 23/5/6 with one turnover in 37 minutes is an incredible night’s work and his steadiness when Creighton did try to make their way back into the game was what we have come to expect. A night after having all sorts of trouble with Umojah Gibson, Boum was relentless in pestering Ryan Nembhard, holding him to 5 points on 2-12 from the floor. It was just another night of high arcing floaters and punishing teams for going under screens for Xavier’s #0, but in doing what we expected him to do he showed why he merits praise as one of the best guards in the nation.
Toughness plays in March
As he headed for the locker room, Souley Boum was briefly interviewed by FOX sideline reporter Kristina Pink and expressed that March was the time of year when the players feel the urgency to leave it all on the court. That was certainly the case for Xavier tonight. Every loose ball was accompanied by a Musketeer sacrificing his body to secure it. Every shot attempt saw X’s bigs battling to grab position, which led to Xavier getting back a whopping 43% of their own misses and over 80% of Creighton’s. Jerome Hunter is the toughest dude on the floor in basically any circumstance. Colby Jones couples a nose for the ball with the fearlessness to put his body on the line to make sure it’s his. Probably the enduring image from tonight’s game will be Jack Nunge’s bleeding lip, which only seemed to make him more aggressive in dominating whoever Creighton threw at him. Xavier didn’t just shoot 10% better from the floor and 11% better from three than their opponents, they made every hustle play and got to every loose ball, which is what should have been a closely fought game on paper turned into a chance to let the walk ons play at Madison Square Garden.
This team is peaking at the right time
Tonight’s win elevated Xavier to 14th in Kenpom, their highest rank this season. After failing to secure a single Q1 win in February (partly because they beat Seton Hall so badly it dropped them to Q2), Xavier has picked up 2 in the first 10 days of March with a shot at another one tomorrow night. The loss of Zach Freemantle is not good and is a rough break for both the team and Zach as an individual, but this team has played some of their best basketball of the season in the last couple of weeks and will now be playing with momentum as they enter the NCAA Tournament next week. After a couple of seasons where the Big East Tournament was a brief and painful summary on a faltering close to the season, this Xavier team looks like they are hitting their stride somewhat as the big dance awaits.