CINCINNATI -- On paper, Xavier’s 0-3 skid over the last seven days looks daunting.
In that seven-day gauntlet against Top 12 opponents, all Big East foes, the Musketeers’ men’s basketball team learned hard lessons in adversity.
It discovered what it was like to be blown out by 25 points at Villanova. It felt the sting of a loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse against a Butler team it led at halftime.
Then there was Creighton. The No. 7 Bluejays clipped No. 22 Xavier 72-67 at Cintas Center before a standing room only crowd of 10,348 Monday afternoon. Despite losing standout point guard Maurice Watson Jr. to a knee injury in the first half, Greg McDermott’s team ensured XU’s first three game losing streak since 2013-14.
Xavier also showed 40 minutes moxie and perseverance, two things it could not string together in its prior two defeats. That progress in the midst of turmoil bodes well for the team moving forward.
“We played really tough together as a team,” Xavier guard J.P. Macura said. “Everybody was hustling and that’s really what Coach (Chris Mack) asks of us, to come every day to practice and games and give it our all. And I thought we did that tonight. Just a couple plays went their way and that’s just how it goes.”
Down one point with 49 seconds remaining, the Musketeers missed four shots in one possession. Creighton’s Cole Huff converted two free throws to make it a three-point affair and XU missed a 3-pointer on its last attempt.
Creighton (18-1, 5-1 Big East) prevailed in a game influenced by Xavier’s 40 percent shooting, 17 turnovers and 13 missed free throws. The Musketeers dropped to 13-5 (3-3).
Disappointing for the team, certainly. Disheartening? Not quite.
“As a coach, if you’re coaching effort and toughness, that’s a problem. I feel like the last couple games I was coaching that. And I wasn’t coaching that today. So it’s disappointing because you want the result to sort of match the effort that’s given, but life doesn’t always work that way. And so we take the good with the bad,” Mack said.
“I don’t want to be that coach that says one thing and then is another and starts screaming at our guys for not giving effort when they did. They gave great effort. Our execution wasn’t the best. We let (Justin) Patton get behind us on a couple ball screen rolls and he made a couple huge tip-ins. And we’ve got to make our free throws. But free throws aren’t effort based. They’re just not. And nobody’s trying to miss lay-ups at the end.”
Trevon Bluiett scored 17 points with six rebounds. RaShid Gaston added 12 points and a career-high 17 rebounds in the finale of Xavier’s most difficult three-game stretch in program history based on opponents’ rankings.
A work in progress
Xavier’s top players – Edmond Sumner, Macura, and Bluiett – played on good Xavier teams prior to this season and didn’t necessarily have to lead in a fashion that the team needs now. Sumner has battled poor decision-making in spates. Macura has been known to take ill-advised deep shots. Bluiett has struggled mightily from 3-point range (17.2 percent) in the last five outings.
The return of Myles Davis has not been a magic elixir. The senior guard has gone 0-for-7 from the field in three games back from suspension.
Although Davis is a vocal leader, he requires time to acclimate to the flow of the college game.
“We’ve got people saying, ‘Oh, timing’s everything. He’s back for the semester.’ He’s not back. He hasn’t practiced in four months,” Mack said. “All the evil witchcraft that I’m up to in my basement is garbage. The kid served a semester suspension. He’s just trying to get back in shape. Hopefully this week of five, six days of practice helps him become closer to the player he was a year ago.”
Another work in progress has been feeding the post. Passes inside are bred from guards’ confidence that bigs will score. All too often Xavier’s frontcourt, anchored by Sean O’Mara and Gaston, has been inconsistent.
The Musketeers have been working on that balance. Against Creighton, the team scored 34 of its 67 points in the paint.
“We don’t throw the ball enough inside and we did a better job of that today. We’ve got to gain a trust with the guys in the post,” Mack said.
It’s difficult to compare last year’s team to this year’s because personnel is so different, but the Musketeers have stamped out one big question by continuing to flourish in the rebounding department. Ball security is next on the list.
“We’ve just been careless with the ball, been throwing it around and turning it over. We’re going to work on that in practice a little bit. It’s just got to mean more to everyone on the team,” Macura said.
And then there are free throws. Xavier entered the game ranked seventh among 10 Big East teams in free throw percentage (70.9) before converting just 55.2 percent of its attempts.
Said Gaston: “We’ve just got to go to the line with confidence. Keep practicing and go to the line with confidence and knock them down.”
After losing to three teams ranked in the top nine of the NCAA’s RPI, Xavier has a respite from games until Sunday’s rematch against Georgetown at Cintas Center. Next Thursday (Jan. 26) is the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout at Cincinnati.
First things first: Xavier can’t afford a home loss to the Hoyas, which are 80th in the RPI.
For now Xavier’s best RPI win at Cintas Center is against Wake Forest (30th). The Musketeers have a neutral court win over Clemson (43rd) and only one road win, over aforementioned Georgetown. Nabbing a victory at UC (18th) or Creighton (ninth) would greatly bolster Xavier’s NCAA tournament resume.
Watson hurt his left knee with 9:40 left in the first half and hobbled to the end of the bench. He fell hard while being fouled on a lay-up soon after and was carried off the court by teammates.
Watson re-emerged on crutches in the second half and iced his knee the rest of the outing. Asked for a knee update after the game, McDermott said the answer was still in limbo.
“Until we get an MRI, I’m not sure,” McDermott said. “I don’t think there’s any ligament damage. I think our trainer and Xavier’s doctor that looked at him seemed to think the ligaments are solid. Now whether there’s any meniscus issues, we won’t know until we get back. He probably needs to move in our trainer’s basement here for a few days to see if we can’t get him back as quick as possible.”