XU Faces Harsh Reality of Life in Big East

Saturday afternoon Xavier realized the harsh reality of playing in its new conference. The Musketeers found out the hard way that if they don't bring their 'A' game, they're in danger of losing against any team in the conference. The other nine all have talent and are dangerous.

Xavier dropped its second straight conference tilt and its third game overall in the Big East Saturday afternoon, falling to Seton Hall 68-60. After a week layoff following a loss at Providence last Saturday, the Musketeers didn't look ready to play and were plagued by some of the same issues that caught up to them against the Friars, plus a few new ones.

With defense being the biggest emphasis during the last week of practice, X's effort on that end of the court was the most disappointing part of the loss. The Musketeers did nothing to improve on their eighth-ranked defensive points per possession average in the conference (.980 ppp) by allowing 1.097 points per possession to the Pirates. The familiar problem of allowing open perimeter jump shots hurt X again in this one. Seton Hall made 8-of-22 attempts from 3-point range, and the issue was magnified by the fact that the Pirates got a few of those on wide open looks in key moments.

Coach Mack seemed to be most frustrated by the lack of focus and his team's mental approach on the defensive end. Particularly during the first handful of minutes, the Musketeers weren't ready to play. Fuquan Edwin getting loose for a couple of open shots off of staggered screens, and Patrik Auda getting a defender in the air with a pump-fake and then finishing an easy layup are a good example of a few of the major bullet points that were in the scouting report for the Pirates that the Musketeers' defenders looked completely unready for when they occurred.

"The first four or five minutes it was pretty apparent, at least from my vantage point, that we weren't ready," Mack said. "And so that's really disappointing whether it's home or away. This is the first home game we've lost all year. It's not a good feeling."

Isaiah Philmore agreed with his coach, "The coaching staff puts things together for us to read, scouting reports and everything. Gives us what to run when to run, and we just didn't execute."

The actual effort, in terms of playing hard, wasn't bad. The Musketeers weren't lethargic or soft on the defensive end, and they did a decent job of keeping Seton Hall off of the free-throw line, which was a huge key to the game. They won the rebounding battle 33-28, and limited the Pirates to just two second-chance points, while outscoring them 34-20 in the paint. In college basketball - with the short length of the game, the relative lack of skill on the offensive end, and the high level of defensive coaching - the game is often about making the least amount of mistakes, and the Musketeers had too many failed possessions on that end Saturday.

As always, though, looking at only one stat or aspect from the game doesn't tell the full story. The Musketeers' offensive struggles were just as much to blame for the loss, and twice as surprising, considering their proficiency in scoring to this point during conference play.

A victim of their own success against man-to-man defenses, many teams have chosen to zone the Musketeers, which is exactly what Kevin Willard did. The Pirates were active, disguised their defense well by matching up within the zone, and bothered Xavier with their length.

"With a short turnaround - they run so much good action, not only for Semaj but really for (Matt) Stainbrook - we decided if they're going to beat us, they're going to have to make shots from the outside. So we just zoned them," Willard said. "I thought we got a little lucky in the second half. I thought they got some open looks but sometimes that just happens."

One of the biggest issues in the loss against Providence was the Musketeers digging themselves a hole because of a lack of scoring early in the game with both Stainbrook and Christon being virtual non-factors on offense. That wasn't the problem on Saturday. Christon was a big part of the offense early on, as they used him to attack the zone from the middle, which helped spur a run and get them back into the game after trailing 19-11 at the 9:00 mark. He led X with eight points and three assists at halftime, while Stainbrook had six points and six boards, and the Muskies held a 28-27 lead. Christon remained aggressive into the second half and kept his big man involved, as they finished with 21 and 16 points respectively.

So what went wrong?

The Musketeers' biggest issues were turnovers and their inability to knockdown an outside shot. Thirteen turnovers is not a ridiculously bad number for a game, but not all turnovers are created equal. Christon and backcourt-mate Dee Davis had five turnovers a piece, several of them being really bad miscues around the top of the key that led to run-out layups or spray 3-pointers in transition. The Musketeers' 13 turnovers led to 21 points for Seton Hall.

"Give a lot of credit to Seton Hall," Mack said. "They did a great job. Their zone bothered us for the majority of the game, and you combine that with the amount of turnovers that we had that led to points, to me, that was the biggest difference in the game. I don't mean dead ball turnovers; steals that lead to easy points for the opponent."

With 5:37 to play, Myles Davis hit his second three of the game to cut the Musketeers' deficit to one possession, 56-54. That was the last three Xavier would make in the game, and it was immediately answered by Seton Hall's Brandon Mobley. The Musketeers went 0-for-6 in those final five minutes, and watched the Pirates' lead bounce between five and nine. Their best shooters missed multiple good looks down the stretch that could have clawed them back into the game. Though Myles Davis hit two of them, he finished just 2-of-7 for the game and has clearly hit some type of freshman wall/slump, as he's now just 6-for-27 (22.2%) in his last nine games from beyond the arc. Justin Martin and Dee Davis, who had been picking up the slack for Myles Davis' struggles from beyond the arc recently, combined to go 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, plus James Farr missed his only attempt. That inability to make an outside shot also allowed Seton Hall to feel confident in staying in its zone for the duration of the game.

After a rocky non-conference slate, the Musketeers' maiden voyage into the Big East started out with smooth sailing that felt reminiscent of the calm Atlantic-10 waters they were used to floating through on their way to March. Saturday didn't mark the end of their season, but it was a wake-up call that players and fans alike will have to recalibrate expectations in this new conference.

The Big East is ranked fourth in conference RPI and third in strength of schedule, ahead of the ACC, the SEC and the American. All of the teams except for DePaul are ranked in the top 100 according to KenPom, with the Blue Demons bringing up the rear at 139. It may not be quite as good at the top as many experts predicted coming into the season, but it's deep. Consider, Butler, ranked 97 by KenPom with its discipline and a shooter like Kellen Dunham, is tied for last in the conference right now at 2-7.

A 10-8 record will be considered a job well done in this conference, and have a team in position for an at-large bid depending on their non-conference resume. With 10 games left, the Musketeers would only need to go 5-5 to accomplish that feat. Only four of those games are at home, though, and out of the four, two of them are against Creighton and Villanova. In other words, winning on the road will be required.

"It definitely hurts, but we're not going to dress it up and treat it as more than it is, which is a loss," Stainbrook said. "We're going to have to be road warriors and go into Villanova and play our hearts out."

"At the end of the day this is just a little bit of adversity," Philmore added. "We went through it at the beginning of the year and we bounced back pretty nicely. We just need to make sure that we regroup. It's a quick turnaround. We've got to get ready for Villanova. It's at Villanova, which is a tough place to play."

Xavier's performance on Saturday was subpar, and will not be good enough to get the job done in its new conference regardless of competition. That's life in the Big East. Every game will have serious consequences, and be drama-filled. A bad stretch will result in a losing streak. The rest of the schedule will also be littered with big games and huge opportunities to make up for early mistakes, such as Monday night's game at Villanova.

Ever since the Musketeers moved into the Atlantic 10, Xavier fans wanted to upgrade to a better conference. This is the reality of a big-time basketball conference. Enjoy the ride, and be glad you won't have to watch Fordham.

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