"All [Xavier's] Achilles heels are ailing them tonight."
-Shannon Russell, with 8:37 left in the game
Xavier came out of the locker room looking to establish the post - and particularly Kenny Frease - early. That was successful, as Kenny had the first four Xavier points of the game, and he and McLean combined to score 15 of Xavier's 20 first half points. Frease also had our only assist of the first half, hitting Mark Lyons for the final Xavier bucket of the period.
In between all that offensive post dominance, Xavier was having some real struggles elsewhere. Once again, interior rotation on the defensive end was lackluster at best. With 5:22 remaining in the first half, Cashmere Wright got an easy layup when he passed the ball to Ibrahima Thomas on the high post and then cut past him. Kenny initially dropped off Thomas when Wright's man got scrubbed on Thomas, but he stepped back up and left Wright alone on the block. Meanwhile, Jeff Robinson stood in the corner face guarding his man 22 feet from the bucket while Thomas stood alone on the block. Players are (usually) coached to take away the most dangerous option - you can see this in action when Xavier rolls its defense ball side when a big man hedges a screen - but Kenny and Robinson each guarded a much lower percentage shot while leaving a man wide open for a lay in.
Despite big men scoring 3/4 of Xavier's points in the first half, the Muskies almost wholly abandoned the post in the second. Of the 11 points scored by McLean and Frease in the second half, 7 came via the offensive glass. After his layup with 18 minutes left, Kenny had one more shot attempt. Particularly painful was the sequence after McLean cut the game to five (35-30) with a layup. X's next four possessions went missed jumper by Tu, turnover by Lyons, turnover via technical foul by Tu, turnover by Tu. By the next time Xavier scored - a bucket by McLean - Cinci had rattled off eleven straight points and taken complete control of the game.
Xavier's lack of guard depth was really exposed here. With Holloway not only not scoring but also making bad decisions on the ball, Coach Mack looked down the bench and saw and injured Jay Canty, and injured Brad Redford, partial qualifier Justin Martin, and walk-on Kevin Feeney. Feeney plays his guts out, giving well upwards of 110% when he's out there, but he's not the answer to any major in-game question. So X stuck with a struggling set of guards and paid the price for it; the bench had 2 points and 2 boards in 26 minutes.
Trailing by 13 with 12:30 left, Xavier never brought the game any closer than that. Holloway never seemed to accept the fact that he was having a bad night, continuing to try to establish a scoring presence in the game. He seemed out of sorts all night, even going an uncharacteristic 1-3 from the line. Dante Jackson never really had a chance to shoot himself into the game, spacing out his four misses evenly throughout the game. Cinci conducted themselves like a team up 20 in a big rivalry game for most of the last ten minutes and cruised to a 66-46 victory.
Keys to the game:
-Xavier's guard play was not good, keyed by a horrible performance by Tu. He went for 5-4-2 on 2-13/0-5/1-3 and turned the ball over 4 times. The starting guards combined for 9 turnovers and 20 missed shots, which adds up to a lot of empty possessions for a team whose big men were finding traction early.
-Xavier's ball movement was again poor, resulting in just four assists on the evening. To be successful, Xavier's offense is going to have to work inside-out and make the extra pass. They were spotty at the first and bad at the second tonight, and they paid the price.
-Jamel McLean: Jamel went for 18-6-0 on 6-7/0-0/6-9 shooting and added three blocks. On a day where not much went right for Xavier, his contributions were the difference between a bad loss and a total laugher. Mark Lyons was also considered, but it's hard to give a game ball to a guard with four turnovers and one assist.
Not so much:
-Tu Holloway and Dante Jackson: Tu's struggles are documented above. Dante's final Shootout saw him post a 2-2-2 line on 0-4/0-3/2-3 shooting. He also turned the ball over once. Not a fitting way to go out for a player who has been a part of so many big Shootout moments in his career.
-When Xavier fans discuss this particular contest in the future, not much will be said. A 46-point showing for the offense isn't going to get it done in any game with a shot clock, and the whole thing went irrevocably off the rails early in the second half. Despite that, I have faith in Coach Mack and the Muskies to pull it together headed into conference play. Remember, X was also 8-5 and looking all kinds of NIT after 13 games last year.
Next game: 6:30pm Sunday, 1/9 @URI.