Russell: Where does Xavier go from Baylor loss?

No. 7 Xavier absorbed its first loss of the season, a 76-61 defeat by No. 9 Baylor, after trailing by as many as 18 points Saturday afternoon in Waco.

The Bears (8-0) executed another second-half rally and picked apart the Musketeers (7-1) in the Top 10 clash. Xavier did itself no favors by missing free-throws, committing turnovers, losing its stride when scoring leader Trevon Bluiett picked up his fourth foul, and lacking offensive contributions from its frontcourt.

“You can’t turn the ball over when you’re on the road and expect good things to happen. Baylor had lot to do with that. Their length gave our team problems. I don’t think we’re any different than any team in the country,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said in the post-game press conference.

“But I’m more concerned about our growth from here, being able to take care of the basketball, making free throws down the stretch. That really became the separator in a game that we couldn’t necessarily get back in.”

So where does Xavier go from here? In the literal sense, the team flies back to town and has a few days to tune up before leaving Tuesday for Boulder, ahead of Wednesday’s 9 p.m. game at Colorado.

There is work to do in the meantime.

Let’s talk turnovers

Xavier committed 10 of its 17 miscues against Baylor after the break, which effectively put the ball back in the Bears’ hands and widened the scoring margin.

It wasn’t the most turnovers in game this season – the Musketeers had 18 against Clemson in the Tire Pros Invitational, and 17 against Lehigh in the opener – but the difference this time was that Xavier could not overcome them.

The team’s 13.6-turnover average through eight games has been fueled by tough passes, mental mistakes and opponents’ defenses.

Factor in two freshmen (Quentin Goodin, Tyrique Jones) and two transfers (Malcolm Bernard, RaShid Gaston) who have just dipped their toes into high major games. They combined for six turnovers at Baylor.

It was a challenging game in the turnover department for Edmond Sumner, too. After shaking off early-season rust and amassing 14 assists and just one turnover in the prior two wins over Northern Iowa and North Dakota State, the point guard committed four turnovers with just two assists versus the Bears.

Taking care of the ball has long been emphasized by Mack, and those efforts likely will be ramped up this week, as they were last year. The 2015-16 team had patches of trouble (15 turnovers against Miami University, and 19 in Game One versus Villanova when Sumner suffered his concussion) but finished the season with a 12.6 average.

Experiencing the pressure Baylor imparted, and witnessing its 18 points off turnovers, should play to Xavier’s favor moving forward, if only to underscore the importance of ball security.

Finding balance

The recurring theme about Xavier’s frontcourt, and its ability to produce, came to the forefront against the Bears. Sean O’Mara, Jones and Gaston went a combined 1-for-8 from the free-throw line. Add big man and perimeter specialist Kaiser Gates, and it was 1-for-9.

Xavier was outscored 38-18 in the paint and only converted 13 second-chance points off 18 offensive rebounds. Post players’ ability to impart their will against smaller opponents vanished in Waco, and 7-foot Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. was only part of the problem.

The more Baylor expanded its defense in an attempt to shutter Xavier’s 3-point production, the more the Musketeers had chances to exploit Baylor’s weakness – its interior defense.

“And so when we throw the ball in there and we get fouled and we don’t convert free throws, you’re only asking Baylor to continue playing the way they play,” Mack said.

“If we could have gotten some and-ones and been stronger with the ball in and around the lane and then gotten to the free-throw line and made those opportunities, then maybe Baylor would have honored that a little more in the interior. But we didn’t and that’s why they won the game, at least from our offensive perspective.”

Guards Sumner, Bluiett and J.P. Macura carried the scoring load through the first seven games. That became problematic against Baylor when Macura sputtered to a 2-for-16 finish and Bluiett garnered his fourth foul midway through the second half.

In short: If the frontcourt can increase its production, Xavier will become a more balanced team.

Free-throw free fall

Trouble from the stripe is not new to this group of Musketeers but there has been no greater disparity, percentage-wise, than the Baylor game. Xavier made just 16 of its 28 attempts, or 57.1 percent.

Considering the Musketeers’ small sample size of games, the struggle made an impact on the season stat. Xavier entered the Baylor outing with a 72.2 percent accuracy from the stripe. It left at 69.9 percent.

Xavier works on free-throw shooting at practice when players are fresh and when players are tired. The numbers are recorded and studied. Additional homework is given.

From there, it’s up to the players to retain the presence of mind in game situations when free throws can make or break an outcome.

The summary

Xavier walked a precarious line against Baylor until Bluiett garnered his fourth foul with 10:32 to play. In the 3:02 after that foul, the Musketeers’ one-point lead turned into a seven-point deficit.

Ultimately, Baylor sewed up the win by outscoring Xavier 25-10 in the latter part of the second half.  

Other pitfalls, like Macura’s shooting woes, probably are rare. The guard never has missed so many shots in a Xavier game. In fact, his 16 attempts rank second in his career behind the 18 he took against Clemson (and he made 10 of those).

The season is long, as is the fix-it list, and the loss at Baylor could motivate Xavier to reach new heights.

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