Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Train Stops in Philly

Last night's Xavier-Temple showdown was undoubtedly one of the biggest games of the Atlantic-10's young life. The two programs that have historically dominated the conference came into their meeting undefeated in conference play and on a roll, Temple getting ranked up to 17th in the country along the way. There was a great deal of hype surrounding the meeting and many thought the eventual A-10 champion would be the winner of this one. In the end, the Owls proved too much at home for the young Musketeers and handed them a 77-72 loss, their first L since a double-OT thriller at Wake Forest on January 3rd.

Xavier, now 12-6 overall and 4-1 in A-10 play, blew a huge opportunity to get a marquee road win and cement themselves into the NCAA tournament in March, having won 6 of the past 7 games and back on their way to national attention. The first half continued back and forth for most of the time with numerous lead changes and quick play. The Owls ended up leading 39-34 at halftime but X quickly mounted a 2nd half surge, going on a 7-0 run just before the 15 minute mark and grabbing the lead at 48-47. The very next Temple possession really was symbolic of the game, however, as Juan Fernandez drained a 3 to give his team the lead back. Xavier was never able to hold a consistent edge in the 2nd half and always seemed to be on the verge of surging in front, although they never actually made it happen. They pulled it to within 3 points in the final minute but Temple was able to ice the game at the free throw line, crushing any chance the Muskies had at a miracle comeback.

There's no question that the loss was disappointing for X, but it doesn't crush their chances for the postseason as there are still many opportunities to improve the resume. A win was possible in Philly, but Temple was clearly the better team on this night, shooting 60% from the field as a team (ridiculous) and relying heavily on their starters to carry them (no starter played under 36 minutes). Senior Ryan Brooks led the charge Wednesday, scoring 22 points on 7-12 shooting and grabbing 7 rebounds while Lavoy Allen also had an excellent game by scoring 16 and tallying 7 boards also. The Owls deserve a good deal of national respect, now having beaten Xavier, Villanova, Seton Hall and Rhode Island, and are certainly helping to prove that the A-10 is a legitimate conference this season and will be dangerous come postseason play. This return to prominence for Temple and Xavier's recent success set up one great matchup and gained some much needed national focus for an underappreciated conference.

There are many good things that came out of this game, but the fact remains that Xavier lost when they could have won. Here's 2 main reasons for last night's setback:

1. Kenny Frease- There's not much left to say about Kenny anymore. Coach Mack has given the big center numerous chances to start games and become a key factor in this team's success. Frease has continually gotten worse and worse, however, as his opportunity has increased. Last night Kenny couldn't even grab rebounds let alone contribute anything on the offensive end and turned the ball over multiple times. If you aren't getting boards at 7 feet tall, there's no reason for you to even be playing the game, Kenny's minutes have to decrease from here on out.

2. Poor help defense- Temple was consistently getting open jumpers and easy layups all night because of their solid screening away from the ball and attacking the hoop. Xavier did a terrible job of recognizing the plays that the Owls were running and where they were going and really failed to help each other out when there was a defensive breakdown. This doesn't seem to be an overall glaring issue for the season, but Mack better work on this with his squad if they expect to stop other talented offenses down the road.

The schedule doesn't get any easier for X after this loss as they host the red-hot Rhode Island Rams on Saturday at the Cintas Center. The Rams will come into the game at 15-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play, having beaten Providence, Boston College and Oklahoma St. out of conference. This game now looms huge for the Muskies as they search for another quality W to post on their schedule and try to get into the NCAA tourney and improve their seed. This is an important junction for Xavier and Coach Mack certainly knows it, look for another great A-10 showdown on Saturday night.

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