Shannon Russell: Recurring themes haunt No. 13 Xavier Musketeers

BOULDER, Colo. – The growing pains that afflicted Xavier’s men’s basketball team in a road defeat at Baylor materialized again Wednesday in a 68-66 loss to Colorado at the Coors Event Center.

No. 13 Xavier blew a nine-point lead in the second half and fell on the wrong side of a 15-0 run. A litany of items on its to-do list after the Baylor loss -- making free throws, playing cohesive defense, taking good shots -- fell by the wayside in a second straight defeat.

Simply put, coach Chris Mack said Colorado “was better than we were.”

“They generated some easy opportunities that are unacceptable from our end," Mack said. "A guy goes down the lane on a simple ball screen at the top of the key and shoots a finger roll with no defender in the lane. I don’t know how that happens.

“Our team right now has to figure out a way to quit taking their foot off the gas pedal. Winning at this level requires a 40 minute effort, especially when you’re on the road. And we’re not able to do that right now.”

Xavier long has subscribed to a scheduling philosophy featuring non-conference challenges, like then-No. 9 Baylor and Colorado in back-to-back road games. Not every program is as willing to subject itself to such a gauntlet. 

But the risks are losses, and that’s where the Musketeers stand now. Their last chance for a non-conference road win is Jan. 26 in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout at Cincinnati.

Despite Trevon Bluiett’s career-high 27 points, Xavier checks in at 7-2 heading into Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. home game against Utah.

Frontcourt shake-up

RaShid Gaston made his first Xavier start after being challenged by Mack following the Baylor game. 

The fifth-year senior supplanted former starter Sean O’Mara and provided a solid frontcourt presence, setting new Xavier highs with 14 points with 11 rebounds and creating balance within the offense.

His free-throw shooting sputtered (0-for-3), but he was a force on the glass. 

Gaston rebounded so efficiently that Colorado, which averaged a Pac-12-leading 14.5 offensive boards entering the game, finished with just six. He also eased the scoring load on Xavier’s guards, one game after Edmond Sumner and Bluiett accounted for 42 of the team’s 61 points at Baylor.

Although Mack praised Gaston’s rebounding, he said the starting role at center hasn’t been locked up by anyone yet.

“I think, quite honestly, nobody’s really separated themselves at the five position to the point where it’s glaring,” Mack said.

Gaston may be well on his way to that separation if he can continue to maximize his minutes.

Maturing Macura

Last season J.P. Macura was Xavier’s energy-inspiring sixth man. This season he needs to be one of the reliable veterans.

Macura had a great game against Clemson (28 points) and spurts of success since then, but his instability has dominated his last three outings. Against North Dakota State, Baylor and Colorado, the junior guard shot just 8–for-36 (22.2 percent) including a 2-for-16 mark (12.5 percent) from 3-point range.

Macura is a much better shooter than that. Only problem is that he doesn’t always play within Xavier’s system.

“It’s tough because you want to give some freedom because he plays so hard. But at times that freedom bites him in the tail,” Mack said. “We’re going to keep watching film and we’re going to keep showing him why he has to make better decisions and what better decisions produce.”

Despite missing all five of his perimeter attempts at Colorado, Macura finished with eight points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. 

Free-throws (again)

It’s officially an issue. The Musketeers went 13-for-21 from free-throw line in Colorado and have missed 27 attempts in the last three games.

Xavier squandered five free-throw opportunities in the last 4:15 against the Buffaloes – a disconcerting figure considering the margin of defeat was just two points. Four players have dropped below 52 percent from the stripe for the season.

So how can the team increase its accuracy?

“Practice,” Gaston said.

Additional reps already have been added to the practice regimen, so it will be interesting to see what adjustments the coaching staff makes to help players convert their foul shots.

Mercurial temperament

There were six ties and 13 lead changes at Colorado. Xavier ultimately unraveled during a seven-minute field goal drought in the second half, underscoring the streaky play that has dictated its two losses.

“We’ll have a stretch of three or four minutes where we’re generating really good shots whether the ball goes in or not. And then for the next three or four minutes, we’ll take absurd shots that have nothing to do with our offense. And it’s been addressed,” Mack said. “But obviously I’m not doing a good enough job because talking ain’t teaching.”

Gaston is confident the Musketeers are capable of better execution than what has unfolded in the second halves of the last two games. 

“I feel like we have a lot of talented guys and a lot of smart, coachable guys and we need to be able to get the job done,” Gaston said.

Stay tuned.

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