Thank God for Sean Miller. It is tempting, watching this team of disparate pieces, to wonder where they’d be with Travis Steele or even Chris Mack at the helm. Instead, Xavier has one of the best coaches of the generation somehow figuring out how to put the #4 team in the nation in serious trouble despite his team shooting 9-31 from the floor and making a field goal every 3:08 down the stretch.
That is the frustration of this Xavier team. They are, quite frankly, not very good. Yes, this team could run through the old Atlantic 10, but that’s cold comfort at most. Look at this roster. In a nine man rotation, six have never played high level college basketball before. Five are freshman. Three are not native English speakers. This is a collection of pieces thrown together when the season changed drastically before it even started. There is no cohesion at all.
The good news is that they fight together. Xavier has lost some heartbreaking games this season, but none of them because they have quit trying. Last night, down 14 to the reigning national champs with under five minutes to play it would have been understandable if they downed tools and coasted to a double digit loss. Instead they ripped off a 13-2 run and almost got back into the game.
This would be more encouraging if this were second grade basketball where trying hard was the end goal. It isn’t. Xavier should be commended for their absolute refusal to go quietly into that good night, but there isn’t a place for that on the team sheets the committee will use come Selection Sunday. There are no good losses. Does it show character and improvement to run one of the nation’s best teams so close? Yes. Does it matter in the end? Not one whit.
Ultimately, Xavier is hamstrung by the deficiencies of their parts. Potential superstar Zach Freemantle can do a bit of everything when healthy. Jerome Hunter can guard four spots, rebounds like a demon, and is all but automatic in close. Last season Freemantle shot 58% inside the arc and Hunter was at 59%. This season Sasa Ciani leads the team at 52.4%. That gap is massive. Xavier just doesn’t have a guy on the team who they can throw the ball down low and get a bucket to stanch a run. When UConn went on a 10-0 scoring run and eventually stretched that to 19-8 to put the game away, Xavier was shooting 2-14.
Ready to be depressed? In that span X went 1-8 inside the paint. While UConn was building the lead to 14, Xavier missed five layups. That’s not a gameplan problem, or a scheme problem, or an effort problem, it’s a basketball problem.
And that’s what is going to doom Xavier this season. When it comes down to it, they just don’t have the horses. Abou Ousmane is a physical freak but struggles to get his shoulders all the way square to the rim and misses too many easy shots. Des Claude has made huge strides, but he’s not ready to be the guy. The Europeans are adjusting to a game that was a lot more like a fight in the paint last night.
There’s no killer here. There’s a callow team that does things like seize up on game winning layups or get clubbed on a layup attempt and then try to steal the ball back rather than marking a wide open three point shooter. Three of the bigs would foul out or come incredibly close if they played 40 minutes. Outside of Quincy Olivari and Nemo, no player is even making a third of their tree point attempts.
The list could go on, but the basic gist is that this team is talented but not quite talented enough yet. Somehow, though, they keep coming close. The half empty look is that these guys just won’t get over the hump until next year when some genuine talent comes back and suddenly this team is deep. The half full view is that Sean Miller has worked some almost miracles to get them so close already. You can squint and see a way they can run the table in MSG. Maybe, just maybe, things click soon. A layup here, a better transition on defense there, and this team is 12-3.
Being close doesn’t ultimately matter. Xavier as they look now won’t be going to the tournament. Everyone knew that was a possibility when Freemantle and Hunter went down, but now it looks likely. Still, they’re just close enough that we can see the signs of a run. It really is the hope that kills you.