CINCINNATI — As the remnants of a standing-room-only crowd slowly filed out of Cintas Center on Saturday following Xavier's disappointing loss to Villanova, the afternoon sun wasn’t the only beacon of hope for Musketeers fans.
While the 64-55 loss to the 12th-ranked Wildcats represented a missed opportunity, it wasn’t anything close to being the death knell for the Musketeers’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
Despite an up-and-down season, the Musketeers have done enough to keep their tournament hopes alive. This is largely due to the benefits of being a member of the Big East Conference, where few losses are bad and most wins are good in the eyes of the selection committee.
There are a lot of teams in the country that would like to be in Xavier’s situation. Bottom line: The Musketeers don’t have to scoreboard watch.
“I know Xavier fans and people on our staff like to say, ‘This team needs to win this game,’ but Xavier just needs to win,” said head coach Travis Steele. “We control our own destiny.”
Coming into Saturday’s game, the Musketeers were No. 40 in the NET rankings, the preferred measure of a team’s overall NCAA Tournament resume.
Following Saturday’s loss, the Musketeers are 17-10 overall and 6-8 in the Big East. They are 3-9 against Quadrant 1 opponents, 6-1 against Quad 2 opponents and 4-0 against all of their Quad 3 and Quad 4 opponents.
Translation: Xavier doesn’t have any losses that the committee might view as being of the “bad” variety, at least not yet. Of the four games remaining on its regular season schedule: vs. DePaul on Tuesday night, at Georgetown, at Providence and vs. Butler, the only game not considered a Quad 1 win is DePaul.
“There are a lot of opportunities left,” said Steele. “We just have to have that sense of urgency. That’s what our program is about. We have that opportunity right in front of us with a few games left in the regular season. We have to take advantage of it. It’s the best time of the year.”
That doesn’t help ease the sting of Saturday’s loss for the Musketeers. Beating Villanova not only would have been a Quad 1 victory, it would have raised some eyebrows. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projected the Musketeers to be a No. 9 seed coming into the game. It’s doubtful that the loss will move the needle too much for the Musketeers, certainly not as much as a win would have.
“Obviously, this was a missed opportunity,” Steele said. “We had an opportunity to get a Tier 1 win at home.”
Afterward, Steele called Villanova the most physical team that the Musketeers had faced this season, and he wasn’t satisfied with how his players responded.
Although he was pleased with his team’s shot selection for the most part, he wasn’t happy with how they finished around the rim or with how they allowed the misses to affect their defensive effort at the other end of the floor.
“We missed a couple shots around the rim and we got frustrated,” Steele said. “We have to man up and finish.”
The result was the lowest offensive output in a loss at home since Dec. 22, 2012, in a 56-55 loss to Wofford.
The Musketeers lost to a very good Villanova team that has improved since they played in December, a 68-62 Nova win in Philly. So, what now?
Last season, the Musketeers lost six straight games before winning six of the following seven to climb back into the NCAA Tournament conversation before settling for an NIT bid. That team had a revamped roster backfilled with transfers in Steele’s first season.
This season, Xavier has four returning starters but has endured similar stretches of inconsistency. Can they finish the job this year? The Musketeers have another opportunity to turn the page on Tuesday night against the Blue Demons.
“We can’t dwell on (Saturday’s) loss,” Jones said. “We just need to go out there and play our game. Moving forward we just need to do what we need to do better to come out on top.”