Russell: Turnovers doom Xavier in fifth straight loss

CINCINNATI -- Not since the Bob Staak era has Xavier men’s basketball faced such a skid.

The Musketeers’ losing streak reached five games with Sunday’s 88-79 loss to No. 22 Butler before a sellout crowd of 10,312 at Cintas Center.

Fans took to social media to lament the team’s inability to return to the win column, a rarity since the 1981-1982 season. Since then Xavier has played in three different conferences under five different coaches and never lost more than four straight.

As Butler (23-6, 12-5 Big East) locked up the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden and claimed its first defeat of XU at Cintas Center since 2008, the Musketeers (18-11, 8-8) dropped into a four-way logjam for fourth in the standings.

Xavier has never faced a greater challenge this late in the season under coach Chris Mack.

“No one wants to lose, but we’re losing,” guard Malcolm Bernard said. “I would say it concerns me because you don’t want to get in that habit where you’re OK with losing.”

Bernard said every defeat in the skid – versus No. 2 Villanova, at Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall, and versus No. 22 Butler – has been a little different. The common denominators: Opponents have scored an average of 15.2 points off turnovers and Xavier has been outscored in second halves.

“We just have to do a better job of being stronger with the ball, do a better job as a coach to put our guys in position where we know what we want to do with the ball,” Mack said.

Live-ball turnovers were the Musketeers’ undoing Sunday. Xavier led 71-69 with 5:43 left, courtesy of a J.P. Macura dunk, but Butler outscored the home team 19-8 in the last 5:25.

Four turnovers in succession by Trevon Bluiett, Bernard, Macura and Quentin Goodin led to eight points that broke open the game for Butler. The Bulldogs harassed Xavier ball-handlers and seized opportunities to strip players that didn’t protect the ball.

“We started hedging more and we had active hands and that’s what caused those turnovers,” said Butler’s Kelan Martin, who led all scorers with 25 points.

Butler coach Chris Holtmann said it took a different strategy to defend Xavier in Game Two versus the teams’ first outing Jan. 14 at Butler. The Bulldogs won that game 83-78 but also had to account for Edmond Sumner, who has since been shelved with a torn ACL.

Goodin played three minutes in Game One. Butler didn’t guard Goodin closely from long range in the rematch, likely because of his 22.7 field goal percentage during the skid.

On a day that the Bulldogs said they weren’t entirely pleased with their defense, they ramped up efforts down the stretch to win the game.

“We tried to mix up a little bit on ball-screen coverage and as Kelan said, our activity was really good. We fouled Macura the one time there but it was aggressive play. I think that helped. But certainly being able to create a few late scores – it can be back-breaking. It’s happened to us before,” Holtmann said.

Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com dropped the Musketeers to a nine-seed in his NCAA tournament mock bracket after the loss to Butler.

While Joe Lunardi at ESPN.com said Xavier ought to be poised for an at-large bid regardless of how the rest of the regular season plays out, it’s possible for the Musketeers to jeopardize their prospects by failing to conjure another win before Selection Sunday.

There are still two games left in the regular season. Xavier hosts Marquette at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Cintas Center and plays at DePaul at 2 p.m. next Saturday.

Marquette pounded Xavier 83-61 three games ago and DePaul was the last team the Musketeers defeated before the skid. That was Feb. 8.

“Coach Mack’s biggest message to us after this game is we’ve got a resiliency test coming up. It’s not like Marquette’s a bad team. It’s not like DePaul is a bad team regardless of what records may say or standings or anything like that,” junior Sean O’Mara said.

“Marquette got us last time and we’ve got to take care of them here. We’ve got to win a road game. And then we’re into the Big East Tournament. We’ve got to find a way to turn the page and move on.”

GAME NOTES: Bluiett led Xavier with 21 points. Macura added 17 points, Bernard scored a season-best 13 points with a season-high-tying three steals, and Goodin chipped in 11 points and seven assists…Bernard was held out of the starting lineup for the second time this season and responded with one of his best games in weeks. He nabbed back-to-back steals that paved the way for five points, including a Bluiett 3-pointer, for a lead in the first half…The game featured seven ties and 17 lead changes … O’Mara apologized afterward for the technical foul he received during the game.

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