Xavier missed out on a big opportunity Saturday afternoon in Waco.
Leading No. 9 Baylor on the road 34-31 at halftime, the Musketeers had positioned themselves for a major resume-building win. The tide turned quickly in the second half, though, as they turned the ball over 10 times, went 11-of-21 at the free throw line, and shot just 23.1 percent from the field. Baylor outscored them 45-27 the rest of the way for a 76-61 win.
"Give Baylor a lot of credit," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "They began to adjust and saw the way we were attacking, but their length really affected us. We wanted to get into the lane and put pressure on their big guys, duck them in. And in turn, we get fouled and go to the free throw line and we go 1-for-9 with our bigs from the free throw line."
This loss won't hurt Xavier at all. It won't be any type of ding on the Musketeers' tournament resume. However, Top 10 road wins are like gold at the end of the season, and X showing up as the better team for the first 20 minutes made the loss even more difficult to swallow.
The game was lost at the 10:32 mark of the second half when Trevon Bluiett was whistled for his fourth foul. He had just returned from a stint on the bench after picking up his third foul in the first minute of the half and had also been the Musketeers' best player all game to that point, leading their offense with 12 points on 3-of-5 shooting from three in the first half. JP Macura having his worst shooting performance of the season (2-16 FG, 1-6 3PT) made it so that X didn't have the firepower to overcome his absence.
"(Macura) took some bad (shots)," Mack said. "For the most part, he took good ones, ones that he has to be able to make and he has made. But he took some poor ones and I think it was a little bit of a function of we were having a very difficult time with their zone. It's really good. We're not the only team that's struggled. I wish I had more time to figure it out, but god darn it's hard to get inside of. And when you do, again, we couldn't convert layups and we couldn't make our free throws. I think if we would have made our free throws and we wouldn't have turned the ball over and given them runouts then we could have made it a closer game down the stretch, but we didn't do that and we have to learn from it and bounce back."
Bluiett left the game with Xavier leading 51-50. When he went to the bench, Baylor went on a 9-1 in the three minutes he was off of the floor. He came back in with 7:30 to play, but the Bears' continued on a 21-2 blitz while Xavier went nearly nine minutes without a field goal.
"You compound Tre going out, who was our best perimeter player during the course of the game, and you combine the fact that when we finally get to the rim and get fouled then we go 1-for-9 at the free throw line," Mack said. "Then you compound that with now we're fouling on over-the-backs on those free throw misses allowing them to shoot free throws. And then our inability to take care of the basketball during that stretch, that put the separation in the game."
Bluiett's play, particularly his 6-of-10 mark from beyond the arc, was one of two big bright spots on the day for the Musketeers. He finished with 23 points (6-10 FG) and seven rebounds in 33 minutes.
He came into the game on a shooting slump, having made just 13-of-47 (27.7%) attempts from beyond the arc through XU's first seven wins.
The other bright spot was the Musketeers' overall effort and physicality on the glass. They played solid defense for the most part and pulled down 18 offensive rebounds compared to just eight for the Bears. They also got to the free throw line for 28 attempts compared to Baylor's 18.
That physical play didn't translate to frontcourt production for XU. The Musketeers' big men were exposed against Baylor's imposing frontcourt featuring 6-foot-10, 230-pound Johnathan Motley and 7-foot, 220-pound Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. Xavier's frontcourt trio isn't the most dynamic offensive group to begin with, and against Baylor's size, those three were only able to convert 2-of-10 field goal attempts. The Bears outscored XU 38-18 in points in the paint and the Musketeers were only able to turn those 18 offensive boards into 13 second-chance points. Motley and Lual-Acuil combined for 29 points and 11 rebounds, while RaShid Gaston, Sean O'Mara, and Tyrique Jones combined for 7 points and 15 rebounds. Lual-Acuil also had six blocked shots.
"Here's the thing… I don't question our team's effort or heart," Mack said. "I thought we played with a lot of toughness to get 18 offensive rebounds against Baylor. But it's really telling that we get 18 offensive rebounds and yet we only score 18 points in the paint. They're long, they're athletic and they either challenged some shots, blocked some shots, intimidated some shots… and then when we did get fouled we couldn't convert at the free throw line. They're awfully good. We lost our composure in the second half. A big part of it was Tre going out, but we compounded those problems with not being able to do some of the things that helped us out in the first half."
Point guard Manu Lecomte led the way for Baylor with 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-9 from 3-point range, with five assists and two turnovers in 31 minutes.
Baylor's length changed the game and made it difficult for Xavier to get any type of good looks inside the arc against the zone defense. Without an interior threat for X, the Bears were able to extend their defense even further out in the second half, contesting the Musketeers' jump shots better. X was 5-for-11 from deep in the first half and 4-for-17 after halftime.
Xavier's bigs weren't the reason they lost. However, the loss did lend more credence to concerns about the team's ultimate upside with the current frontcourt personnel, while also raising questions about the perimeter players' margin for error in big games.
Xavier built some wiggle room into the rest of its non-conference schedule by winning the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando. The Musketeers can comfortably take another loss without worrying in this upcoming stretch of at Colorado, home against Utah, and home against Wake Forest. However, ideally, they'd notch three more wins against teams hovering just outside the top 50 in KenPom's rankings, including one on the road.
This loss won't hurt at all. But there are some questions waiting to be answered the next time Xavier plays a top-tier opponent.