Xavier will head back to Cincinnati with more questions than answers as the Musketeers prepare for a four-game homestand starting on Saturday against Utah. They dropped their second straight road game out west on Wednesday night at Colorado, 68-66.
Xavier held a 31-28 lead at halftime and led by as many as nine early in the second half. The Musketeers were in front with fewer than nine minutes to play, but the combination of poor shot selection, a few defensive lapses, and the Buffaloes making big plays led to Colorado going on a 15-0 run to take the lead for good.
“Colorado was better than we were," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "They generated some easy opportunities that are unacceptable from our end. A guy goes down the lane on a simple ball screen from the top of the key and shoots a finger roll with no defender in the lane, I don’t know how that happens. Our team right now has to figure out a way to quit taking our foot off the gas pedal. Winning at this level requires a forty-minute effort especially when you are on the road and we aren’t able to do that right now.”
Xavier had multiple chances to tie the game or take the lead back in the final two minutes, but couldn't get the necessary stops on defense or the big shots on offense to make it happen.
Colorado point guard Derrick White led his team with 23 points (9-17 FG, 3-6 3PT), six rebounds, four assists, and three turnovers. The Buffaloes top three scorers, including senior forward Xavier Johnson and junior forward George King, combined for 57 points and 9-for-14 shooting from 3-point range.
"Our guys battled and we talked a lot during the week about players having to make plays," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "Tonight our players made plays. Down the stretch, Derrick White was great, and that's the White that I've been talking about and who our fans have been expecting to see. He was terrific down the stretch."
After starting 1-for-9 from 3-point range, Colorado hit eight of its next 11.
Xavier was led by Trevon Bluiett's career-high 27 points on 8-of-18 shooting, including 6-of-13 from deep, to go with three rebounds, three assists, two steals and one turnover. Bluiett didn't commit a single foul in 35 minutes of action after being in foul trouble at Baylor. He got very little help as Edmond Sumner scored 10 points (3-11 FG, 1-4 3PT) and JP Macura added eight points (3-9 FG, 0-5 3PT).
Macura is 5-of-25 from the field and 1-of-11 from 3-point distance in the Musketeers' last two games.
“He tends to at times play out of our system," Mack said. "You know it is tough because you want to give some freedom because he plays so hard. But at times that freedom bites him in the tail. We are going to keep watching film and keep showing him why he has to make better decisions and what better decisions produce. But there is a difference between coming in off the bench and being that sixth man energy guy and changing the course of the game and being a silent veteran. Right now he hasn’t found that.”
RaShid Gaston had his best game in a Xavier uniform as he posted 14 points (7-8 FG, 0-3 FT), 11 rebounds, and two blocks in 25 minutes.
“You know quite honestly that nobody has really separated themselves at that five position to the point where it is glaring," Mack said. "The one thing that Colorado really presented was incredible offensive rebounding as a program and especially at that position. Rashid is one of the best rebounders in the country, he just has to play a little more minutes and he did tonight and I think he proved that. He just needs to make free throws too.”
The Musketeers haven't been bad by any stretch of the imagination so far this year. They've had bad moments, though, and those moments have now cost them in their last two games. Their two losses came on the road to the No. 4 team in the country in Baylor and a borderline top 50 team in Colorado. Xavier finished last year ranked 18th in the country in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com and it's currently ranked 21st in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency, so it's not like the Musketeers are floundering at either end.
These two losses aren't a big deal in terms of Xavier's resume and the problems the Musketeers are dealing with seem fixable. Macura and Bluiett should both shoot the ball well simultaneously at some point, Kaiser Gates should improve as he works his way back into form, Myles Davis will return, and it's likely this team will improve at the free throw line. They don't have glaring physical disadvantages that are being exploited regularly and they've shown they have enough talent to play with a top team in the country such as Baylor.
It's reasonable to be high on this team's upside while also acknowledging that they are clearly a work in progress.
“It’s early in the season so we aren’t going to pack our tent and quit playing," Mack said. "We got a reality check the last couple times. We are willing to go on the road and play in games like this but you can get penalized too. Our team has to grow up from these types of experiences because they aren’t fun.”
However, there's also the concern that, for whatever reason, this team just won't ever perform the same on the road like it does at home. That seems a little far-fetched considering what the same core group of guys did on the road last year, but it's something we see from teams all the time, including previous XU teams coached by Mack, and in a tough Big East conference there will be very few, if any, easy road wins this year.
The 2013-14 and '14-15 Xavier teams both struggled with toughness and defense any time they went on the road. They couldn't find a way to consistently lock in without mental lapses and breakdowns when they were away from home and they seemed to lack the ability to fire themselves up without a home crowd. The '14-15 team, led by Matt Stainbrook, figured it out to an extent in the postseason and made a run to the Sweet 16 where they lost to Arizona. That team benefitted from some good matchups both in the Big East (Butler, Marquette) and the NCAA (Mississippi, Georgia State) tournaments, but it was clear those players also raised their level of play a notch.
If this year's team is going to have those road woes, it seems to have a little more in common with the 2012-13 team. Whenever those guys hit the road, they struggled with consistency on both sides of the ball, but they'd particularly lose their flow on offense. Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons would fall victim to playing "hero ball" at times as opposed to promoting ball movement and working the defense.
That's where this year's group has run into its biggest issues. The offense just isn't finding the flow it had last year, and it's being compounded by guys taking bad shots and missing good ones - none of which is a surprise with the Musketeers' key cogs working their way into new roles and new players assimilating to high-major college basketball.
“Well, I feel that some guys are taking some shots that we need to make," Mack said. "We go 13 for 21 from the foul line on the road, that’s not going to win you a lot of games. Also, I feel like we struggle with consistency so we will have a stretch of three or four minutes where we are generating some really good shots, whether the ball goes in or not. And then the next three or four minutes we will take absurd shots that have nothing to do with our offense and it has been addressed. But, obviously, I’m not doing a good enough job because talking ain’t teaching.”
For starters, the loss of Davis means they've lacked a leader, a tremendous passer, and their most clutch shooter. Then, outside of Bluiett at the four, the dynamic at every other position has changed.
Sumner was a breakout freshman last year when most expected Xavier's point guard play to be a weakness. Now, he's expected to be a star and a top player in the country at his position while still running the offense smoothly and distributing to his talented teammates.
Macura has gone from a sixth man that came in off the bench doing anything to spark the team to now being a starter that plays 35 minutes per game and is relied on as one of the team's most important players.
Malcolm Bernard and RaShid Gaston are both getting their first experience of the type of expectations and accountability that come with playing at a winning high-major program, while also adjusting to going up against much more talented opponents on a regular basis.
It may sound too much like "coach speak," but having clearly defined roles is important for a team's success. It's no surprise that the Musketeers are dealing with an early rough patch while they try to get comfortable with those roles and build chemistry.
Xavier having two losses at this point isn't a shock. The Musketeers going through some early struggles was expected. Now, that the issues are known, the question is whether or not they'll be able to fix them before they put themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding.