Muskies Look Toward Conference Play

The beginning of Atlantic-10 play brings a clean slate of sorts for a reeling Xavier team who has lost four of it's last five games, and dropped from the eighth ranked team in the country to unranked in just a matter of two weeks.

After finally getting everybody back from suspensions, and assistant coach Kareem Richardson back from a serious medical condition that kept him away, the Musketeers came up short against a stiff test in Gonzaga Saturday night at the Cintas Center.

The Musketeers now have to turn the page to their conference schedule -- a conference they've dominated the last five years.

"We've been through a lot of adversity," senior Andre Walker said. "Good teams respond well to adversity. This little stretch we haven't, but there's a new season and we're looking forward to it. Coach (Mack) wrote up on the board 0-0, so that's how we're going into this new stretch."

After starting 8-0 against a challenging schedule that included foes from power conferences such as Purdue, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Cincinnati, Xavier dropped three straight to Oral Roberts, Long Beach State and Hawaii, before getting off the schneid with a win over Southern Illinois. The New Years Eve loss to Gonzaga left their overall record at 9-4, not what was expected after Xavier was given their lofty national ranking following their hot start.

As Mack pointed out Monday though, the scenario is not a new one for the Xavier program.

Consider: The Musketeers were 8-5 last year heading into conference play, having lost to Old Dominion, Miami (OH), Gonzaga, Florida and Cincinnati (by 20). The knock on the team was their inability to score and make up for the loss of Jordan Crawford, who had departed early for the NBA.

The year before that Coach Mack's squad was 8-5 as well, with losses to Marquette, Baylor, Kansas State, Butler and Wake Forest. The knock on that team -- Crawford was a ball hog and everyone was standing around watching him on offense.

Sound familiar?

"The same story has been played out here at Xavier for so often that you think people would have a better memory," Mack said. "But, hey, we just have to work through things and become better, and we will. That's what our goal is…what our job is."

It's clear that the Muskies weren't the same team in the games following the Crosstown Shootout incident, as they were before it. What's not clear is whether the struggles were simply a result of roles changing due to the suspensions, or something deeper resulting from the public scolding and hoopla surrounding the aftermath of the rivalry game.

"We were a depleted team for a while," Mack said. "Anytime you lose several key players, it's difficult. But having said that, we'll be fine. We just have to understand who we play on Wednesday and worry about what's ahead of us rather than what's behind us."

The Gonzaga loss came at full strength, and the Musketeers looked much closer to the team that was 8-0 than the team that lost three straight games. There were some glaring flaws in the loss though -- most notably, rebounding and shooting.

Gonzaga dominated Xavier on the glass, out-rebounding the Muskies by 13. Xavier's ineffectiveness on the boards was especially problematic on the defensive end where they allowed the Bulldogs to haul in 14 offensive rebounds -- a large reason why Mack's team was never able to come back in the second half. The 14 offensive boards led to 17 second-chance points for Gonzaga.

Xavier also has to find a way to become more efficient on the offensive end, and it starts with valuing possessions. They turned the ball over just 11 times Saturday night, but had at least the same amount of possessions that ended in bad shots, if not more. Xavier was a combined 3-for-18 from 3-point range, while Gonzaga made 8-of-19 from beyond the arc.

Mack dismissed the notion when asked if he thought his kids were playing with caution due to the public perception following the Shootout.

"No, I don't," he responded. "The season's a lifetime. There's always going to be things you have to improve upon. We haven't had the consistency we've needed on both ends of the floor. We're getting there. Hopefully we progress rapidly."

His players haven't lost the faith either.

"Yeah, definitely. It's been positive even though we lost," Walker said when asked if he was getting a good vibe from his teammates inside the locker room. "We have corrected a couple of things. It's positive because it's a new beginning for us, and we're just ready to start over again basically."

His teammate, center Kenny Frease, admitted that something had changed with the on court chemistry through all the adversity, but agreed that the team was looking toward the future and staying together inside the locker room.

"Something's not right when we're playing games right now. You can feel it that it's not the same," he said. "I think all these days of practice that we're putting together, working hard and doing all these things, just really getting back to fundamentals, I think that's sort of getting that back for us. We'll go into every game with that mindset, that we need to work hard, play good defense and do all the little things and we should be alright."

"I think that there's a feeling right now with our fans and everybody doubting us," the center continued. "A lot of us may think of that as we have to get that back, so that's just more added pressure. I think whatever we do, we have to do for each other. We have to get back to that mindset of just doing it for each other, going out and giving it everything we have and leaving it all on the court."

With the struggles in the rearview, and a new conference season ready to begin, Mack expects his team to learn from the experiences through the first 13 games, while focusing on the new tasks at hand.

"We won't forget about anything that's happened. We're always going to make sure that we learn from it," Mack said. "It's part of the same season but it's certainly a different chapter, one that we're looking very much forward to. We've played a lot of non-conference games that have hopefully put us in all types of situations that will help harden us for conference play."

His seniors agree.

"I think at this point in the year, if you're a freshman, you're not really a freshman anymore, especially with the non-conference schedule we played," Walker said. "It's actually refreshing, because you're just going to a new avenue. We're playing a different schedule and you're not seeing those non-conference teams, and I think coach put together a really good schedule that's getting us ready to play any kind of team in conference. I feel our freshman and sophomores feel very prepared because of how tough our schedule has been so far."

Frease added to that sentiment.

"We've played some of the best teams in the country, and win or lose, we've seen a lot of things. We've had to fight back, we've been in holes and been able to get out of them, we've been in holes and not been able to get out of them. The freshman aren't freshman anymore. This team's already been through a lot, more than 95 percent of the other teams in the country with all the stuff that happened a couple of weeks ago and having to come back two games in a row from down 10 and down 19.. whatever we were. I think we have a lot of experience in that locker room because of our non-conference schedule."

Wednesday Xavier will get a chance to show that they've learned and grown from the experiences of the first 13 games when they travel to LaSalle for a 6 p.m. tip. The Musketeers have beaten the Explorers the last five times the two teams met up, including a 100-62 victory at the Cintas Center in their last meeting.

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