Sixth-ranked Xavier was taught a lesson in Wednesday’s 90-83 home win over St. John’s, even if it was a lesson the Musketeers didn’t need to learn.
Chris Mack’s team has seemingly had proper respect for its Big East opponents this season, as shown by the way the Musketeers have taken care of business at home and on the road on their way to becoming the first team in Division I basketball with 20 wins. However, on Wednesday they were reminded that having a single-digit number next to their name means that their best will be required every single night to stay on track in the deep and competitive Big East conference.
"It was a hard-playing St. John's team that we ran into," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "I wasn't incredibly pleased with the way we played, but we have to move forward and worry about Marquette on Saturday."
St. John’s came into the Cintas Center Wednesday evening with a 7-15 record, including 0-9 in conference play. The Red Storm’s offense was ranked 327th in the country in efficiency according to KenPom, yet found a way to put up 83 points against the Musketeers, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and averaging 1.00 point per possession.
Athletic guards Felix Balamou and Durand Johnson both gave Xavier trouble by creating off the dribble and scoring in the lane. Balamou was 8-of-12 from the field with 20 points, five rebounds and three assists, while Johnson added 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting to go with three assists and three rebounds. Also, despite being just 6-foot-7 and weighing 205 pounds, freshman forward Kassoum Yakwe more than held his own against the Musketeers’ frontcourt, finishing with 14 points (7-12 FG), seven rebounds, five blocks and two steals. Balamou was averaging 6.9 points coming into the game, Johnson was averaging 12.1, and Yakwe was averaging 5.4.
Throughout much of the game, it felt like Xavier would eventually pull away with one of its big signature three- or four-minute runs, but for whatever reason the run never came.
The Musketeers were the tougher team in terms of rebounding and getting to the free throw line. They held a 49-34 advantage on the glass, which led to a 22-9 edge in second chance points. Also, they were 27-for-40 at the free throw line, while the Johnnies were 13-for-21.
Xavier only led by two at halftime, 38-36. Johnson buried a buzzer beating 3-pointer to give the Red Storm some momentum, and end his team’s 0-for-7 start from the perimeter.
Eight turnovers plagued the Musketeers in the first half, hurting the flow of their offense in a fast-paced game, as they shot just 36.4 percent from the field.
In the second half, they found a rhythm on offense, pouring in 52 points while shooting 57.1 percent from the field, including 4-of-9 from 3-point range. Myles Davis scored all of his team-high 16 points after halftime.
The only problem was they weren’t able to pile-up stops on the defensive end.
The Johnnies, particularly Balamou and Johnson, created plays and hit some tough shots at key moments to keep the score close throughout the final 20 minutes. They shot 54.5 percent from the field after intermission, including 5-of-12 from 3-point range.
St. John’s gave itself a chance heading into the final minute, but the Musketeers made the winning plays to put the game away. Edmond Sumner knocked down a jumper off a pass from Davis with 46 seconds left to make it a seven-point game, 84-77. Then Kaiser Gates, Trevon Bluiett, and JP Macura buried six straight free throws to kill any notion of a comeback.
Bluiett finished with a double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds. Macura added 12 points and a career-high seven boards, including five offensive. James Farr had 11 points and Sumner had 10 to round out the five Xavier scorers in double figures.
St. John’s didn’t expose any fatal flaws in Xavier’s defense. There were some matchup issues at times, but the Musketeers already know that a guy like Myles Davis relies on his toughness and IQ over his athleticism, and that their younger guys like Sumner and Gates occasionally get beat on a set play or action that they haven’t experienced enough times to recognize. They also know they have guys that get in foul trouble and may give up an easy bucket or two trying to avoid picking up another. They’ve been able to make up for those deficiencies in every big game so far this year.
Mostly, the Red Storm brought its “A” game, and reminded Xavier that scuffling through the first half with unforced turnovers or bad shot selection and giving an upset-minded opponent confidence and hope is a bad idea, regardless of their record. And, also, leaving 13 points at the free throw line isn’t good.
"It was a little bit of everything," Mack said. "Our guys are used to playing in front of big crowds with excitement. Tonight the building was only half-filled when we started the game. We didn't get off to a good start. St. John's got a little bit of confidence as the score kept close. There are a lot of things that go into it. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the environment, we have to be ready to play and maybe give a better effort than we did for the entire game. But, St. John's played hard and kids aren't immune - whether it's Twitter, whether it's Instagram, whether it's articles, nobody talks about games that you're going to play against an 0-9 conference opponent. They're going to talk about that team being on an 11- or 12-game losing streak, 'you guys should roll 'em,' the whole nine. I don't know if our guys necessarily fell victim to that, but I think when you combine all that stuff, we were just a tick off, and St. John's was ready to play and gave us a really good game."
With the “Villanova dominating the Big East” storyline growing a little stale this season, Xavier has become the conference’s media darling in many ways. The same national articles or television spots that XU fans have enjoyed reading or watching the last two months are the same ones that have been making the rest of the conference sick of hearing about the Musketeers. Plus, for the teams that are in a better spot than St. John’s, a shot at beating Xavier is going to feel like a chance to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Xavier’s final eight regular season games already looked difficult on paper. Wednesday night was a reminder that they’ll all be tougher than they look.