Russell: Xavier Muskies are navigating their toughest week in regular-season history

Running the Big East gauntlet
Posted at 9:00 AM, Jan 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-13 10:23:39-05

CINCINNATI -- Before this week, the toughest three-game, regular-season stretch in Xavier men's basketball history -- based solely on opponent ranking -- came in the Musketeers' Atlantic 10 Conference debut.

The season: 1995-96.

The coach: Skip Prosser.

Xavier lost to No. 1 Massachusetts in overtime at the Cincinnati Gardens before being defeated in Washington, D.C. by a George Washington team on the cusp of the Top 25. XU then fell at home to No. 11 Virginia Tech. All three defeats came within seven days; two were at home.

Fast forward to 2013-14, when Xavier's move to the 10-team Big East featured a host of elite-level league peers.

The recent rise of Creighton to a program-best eighth in the Associated Press poll, in conjunction with a conference slate that includes defending national champion Villanova, has made the Big East a veritable murderer's row.

And no seven-day parcel in Xavier regular-season annals is more difficult than this one.

The No. 15 Musketeers lost at No. 3 Villanova on Tuesday, crumbling against a Wildcats team ranked No. 1 in previous weeks. Chris Mack's club now travels to No. 12 Butler for Saturday's 2 p.m. outing at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where league and rivalry implications are on the line.

Then eighth-ranked Creighton comes to Cintas Center at 2 p.m. Monday.

"We just focus on the task at hand. We can't look in the rearview mirror," Mack said of the stretch in Thursday's Big East coaches' teleconference.

"We certainly have to learn from the game that was played on Tuesday night," he continued. "Most good teams focus on the next practice (and) who's immediately in front of them. So we're going to have to shift our attention quickly to the Butler Bulldogs, and…I've said it before and I'll say it again: We have great respect for their program."

The Bulldogs' most recent game was Wednesday, a crushing defeat by Creighton in Omaha. Although the final score was 75-64, the game wasn't that close. The Bluejays led by as many as 25 points and dominated the momentum before a home crowd of 18,032.

Butler knows Xavier's pain when it comes to the league gauntlet. In the last 10 days the Bulldogs shocked No. 1 Villanova, which precipitated the Wildcats' ranking drop, and outlasted Georgetown on the road in overtime before stumbling at Creighton. Now the Musketeers are on tap.

Butler coach Chris Holtmann said having a short memory is a necessity.

"It's not an easy thing to do, because the losses certainly can stay with you longer than the wins can. The reality is you're trying to keep a long-term approach as much as possible. And if you've been part of a good league or a power league, in most cases every team is going to get beat up a number of times," Holtmann said.

Recovering from Villanova won't be easy for Xavier, and not just because of the loss. It was the way the Musketeers lost that frustrated Mack.

The offense, which Mack had pointed to as Xavier's greatest area of growth in the first half of the regular season, sputtered mightily in its most lopsided defeat. The Musketeers (13-3, 3-1 Big East) shot 29.3 percent overall and 18.8 percent from the perimeter in a 79-54 drubbing that spoiled their spotless league start.

"We played as if we were performing in an open gym," Mack said.

Rectifying offensive issues quickly would aid Xavier's quest to stockpile true road wins. The team's only one thus far is at Georgetown against a Hoyas team ranked 90th in the most recent NCAA RPI. Butler ranks ninth.

The Musketeers' other big chances for marquee road wins are Jan. 26 at Cincinnati (18th in the RPI) and Feb. 4 at Creighton (fifth in the RPI).

Mack and other Big East coaches face balancing acts in terms of improving their teams while preparing for high-level opponents. Mack said that doesn't get easier when playing conference foes a second time in the round-robin league format, but at least there's some familiarity.

"(You're) not introducing personnel or offensive and defensive concepts for the very first time to your team. I also think it comes down to, 'How much time do you have in between games to really prepare?'" Mack said.

The Musketeers returned to practice Thursday to ready themselves for Saturday's outing, and Holtmann and company quickly turned their attention to the Musketeers after Creighton.

"The fact of the matter is, we haven't played very well against (Xavier) since we've been in the Big East. We're 1-6 against them," Holtmann said. "Hopefully we can prepare ourselves well for a really good team."