It's been a while since I optimistically predicted Xavier to come out and blister the rest of the Old Spice Classic field in Orlando. Needless to say that never happened, it wasn't even close. Let's look at X's results from the tourney:
Game 1- vs. Marquette, L 71-61
Game 2- vs. Creighton, W 80-67
Game 3- vs. Baylor, L 69-64
The first game against Marquette wasn't a very shocking loss to any one who saw the game. The Golden Eagles are ripe with fast, young guards and kept the pressure on the Muskies all game. Knowing X had a frontcourt that they couldn't compete with, Buzz Peterson established a game plan that kept our bigs from becoming less of a defensive factor than they would like by pressing the ball and making jumpers. It also didn't hurt that Lazar Hayward had an outstanding game offensively (27 points), showing how tough it will be for any PF to guard him on the perimeter.
Despite Marquette's superior play, Xavier still had every opportunity to win the contest because of one reason: Jason Love. In totaling 21 points and 19 rebounds in the game, Love completely shut down Marquette's chances of scoring inside while he scored with ease on the offensive end. He looked like a clear leader on the floor during all 40 minutes and was the only reason the game was close near the end.
For as good as Love was during the game, his teammates were equally as bad. Jordan Crawford couldn't make shots all day, but instead of trying to find other open players around him he continued to shoot and miss. Kenny Frease seemed to turn the ball over every time he touched the ball on the offensive end, not knowing what to do with his 7-foot frame in the paint. Our PG's Lyons and Holloway seemed frustrated by the quick pace of the Eagles' game and it caused them to turn the ball over a combined 6 times. In the end there were just too many poor performances to counter Jason Love's breakout and cost Xavier their first loss of the season.
Positives: Jason Love, that's it
Negatives: Jordan Crawford playing like Allen Iverson, Kenny 'The Turnover' Frease, coaching not knowing how to adjust to pressure in-game
Game 2 was against Creighton, one of the top mid-majors of the past decade and a team that has built a nice rivalry with Xavier recently (see David West vs. Kyle Korver in the 02-03 season). The Bluejays are a solid squad again this season and posed a threat to the Muskies as this definitely felt like a letdown game.
The Musketeers came out hungry in this battle though, showing a great deal of early energy and hustle. Creighton played tough too and the game was anybody's contest at halftime. This seemed a lot like the Marquette game at half and I was just hoping it wouldn't be another late collapse we'd have to go home with. The Muskies came out of the locker room with increased defensive intensity, and used a big run midway through the second half to finally gain control. The defense then kept the Bluejays at bay the rest of the game to bring home a victory and set up a 5th place game matchup.
Jordan Crawford really led the way offensively in this game, making a great deal more shots than in the Marquette game and totaling 22 of the team's 80 points. Lyons and Holloway also protected the ball better which helped shut down Creighton's fast break points and gave the Muskies more control of the basketball. The defensive intensity was also more visible on the court. There was a great deal more of on-the-ball pressure in this game from X and we didn't seem content with just letting Creighton shoot 3's if they wanted to. With this much better overall effort, Xavier seemed prepped to win 2 games down in Orlando while learning some important lessons from the Marquette loss.
Positives: Team defense, Crawford finding his offensive groove inside and outside, no letdown
Negatives: Not enough coaching intensity (Mack needs to focus on this area if we're going to get a fair shake from refs in bigger games)
The final game of X's tournament schedule found them taking on the Baylor Bears. The Bears are a solid team, reaching the postseason each of the past 2 seasons, but this game seemed like it was Xavier's to lose. The Creighton effort showed that this team had some heart early on and that they realized you have to bring it every game or else risk losing to anyone.
Early on, though, Baylor came out on fire from deep and jumped out to a 12-0 lead. Xavier quickly bounced back, mainly with Jamel McLean hitting the boards hard and getting to the free throw line nearly every time down the floor, and it was a tight one at half. I remember thinking to myself at halftime how there was no chance we could lose this game. We were killing Baylor inside and Tweety Carter wasn't going to hit all of his 3's again as he did in the 1st half.
Consistent with the rest of the tournament though I was dead wrong. X pounded it inside consistently but ended up going 11-21 from the free throw line, none of our open shots from our guards fell and Tweety Carter hit 2 huge 3's near the end of the game to seal the win. The perfect end to a perfect weekend.
Positives: Jamel McLean, the tournament ended
Negatives: FREE THROW SHOOTING, Crawford again looking like Iverson, a real lack of offensive flow most of the game
The tournament was obviously disappointing, but we still showed some good signs and early season losses are bound to happen on any young team. Crawford had 2 horrible shooting days in the losses to Marquette and Baylor while not sharing the ball either, our defense had some tough mismatches in the Marquette game, our PG's need more game-time to learn how to play with their teammates and Coach Mack still needs time to adjust to the head coaching role in real game situations. These aren't exactly excuses but rather rooms for improvement for X going forward. There are still a good deal of important games on the schedule and we'll need to learn from these losses if we hope to win them.
Speaking of important games, there happens to be one tonight for the Muskies as they travel to Manhattan, KS to take on the Kansas St. Wildcats. Flying a little under the radar at the beginning of this season, the Wildcats have started 7-1 and are picked to finish right behind Kansas and Texas in the Big 12, demonstrating the respect Big 12 voters have for them. Their most significant win so far has come over Dayton in the Puerto Rico Shootout where they outrebounded the Flyers 44-32 and won the game by 8.
Kansas St. has a pair of excellent guards manning their backcourt. The first is senior Denis Clemente, a transfer from Miami (FL) who can really light it up from deep. The other is junior Jacob Pullen who is more of a combo guard, doing his offensive damage from both inside and outside and getting some serious looks from NBA scouts. These two can really push the Wildcats attack on offense but also play a stifling, trapping defense that tries to cause as many turnovers as possible. X will need to handle the pressure these two guards can create and pass the ball extremely well to avoid their traps.
Inside Kansas St. starts Curtis Kelly, a 6-9 250 lb junior who transferred from UConn and can really hit the boards. Freshman Wally Judge starts alongside Kelly and is a lean 6-9 220 lbs. who comes in as a McDonald's All-American . The other starter is Dominque Sutton, a junior who works hard and does all the dirty stuff inside. The Wildcats are very talented down low and will certainly challenge X on the boards this evening.
It's going to take a total team effort if the Muskies want to pull out a win against Kansas St. Mack will have to monitor his team early and keep calm if things start to get hectic in the game. They'll have to share the ball with each other if they want to control the clock and stay out of traps from the pressing Kansas St. defense. I think Mack will have them prepared for a new style tonight and can hopefully stick to a gameplan early. If they can I think X will squeak one out on the road and post their first big win of the season and hopefully build some confidence for the tough road ahead.
Coming soon: Sunday 12/13, Xavier vs. The University of Cincinnati, The Crosstown Shootout. Look for numerous posts during the week as the game nears.