Another game, another narrow win for Xavier that could have easily been a questionable loss on the Musketeers' resume.
Xavier turned the ball over 15 times, went 3-for-6 at the free throw line (which included two missed front ends of one-and-ones) in the final minute while leading by less than five points, and played with a general sloppiness and lack of urgency at times that allowed Wake Forest to stay in the game until the final possessions.
The Musketeers ended up pulling out a 69-65 win over the Demon Deacons at the Cintas Center. Trevon Bluiett led the way with 20 points (6-14 FG, 3-7 3PT) and seven boards, while Edmond Sumner added 17 points (6-8 FG, 0-2 3PT) and four boards.
After trailing 38-37 at halftime, Xavier held Wake to 29.4 percent shooting from the field, including 0-for-12 from 3-point range, while outscoring the Demon Deacons 32-27 in the second half.
"For us, I thought we played a lot better defensively in the second half than we did in the first," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "We were much more cognizant of where we needed to be away from the ball. When ball screens were happening, our coverage was pretty good. Wake Forest is a big team. They have some big kids and they out-scrapped us. That hasn't happened a whole lot this year on the glass."
Combo guard Bryant Crawford led the Deacs with 20 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-8 from beyond the arc, to go with six assists and three steals. Star big man John Collins finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks, but he was just 6-of-19 from the field.
RaShid Gaston again played well for the Musketeers, countering Collins' night with an efficient 14-point effort on 6-of-9 shooting to go with four rebounds and two blocks. He came up with multiple important buckets when XU needed points most and played solid defensively.
"I think he did a great job," Mack said of Gaston. "I thought he made John Collins' catches a little bit farther from the basket. You're not going to move RaShid. He might not be as tall as Collins, but you're not going to move him. He's like a fire hydrant. He's strong."
"Basketball is a lot about confidence. (RaShid) took his opportunity and made the most of it. He went Pac-12 team, Pac-12 team, ACC team and although he didn't rebound (tonight) at the level we're used to, he was every bit as good as the guy he was matched up with. I think his teammates have gained confidence in him. That's really good to see. This is who we thought RaShid would be."
Aside from the missed free throws, Mack was actually happy with the way his team closed the game out in the final minutes, which was an improvement from the way X finished off last week's Utah win when he felt his guards had poor awareness and a lack of toughness.
"I told our team I was really happy that we were in the situation where we had to inbound the ball, get fouled, not dribble when it wasn't necessary, be able to handle a trap and be composed," Mack said. "We had to inbound the ball several times to end the game. That's what good teams do and I thought our perimeter guys did a really good job of being strong with the ball and going to the free throw line. We need to make a few more than we made but we ended the game the right way in terms of inbounding the ball and drawing the foul the way we wanted to."
Despite picking up its ninth win of the season through 11 games, Xavier hasn't played to the expectations of a team that was ranked top 10 nationally in the preseason to this point. Lehigh, Missouri, the first Northern Iowa game, Utah, and now Wake Forest are all close games that the Musketeers won in spite of their haphazard play against an opponent that felt inferior.
Xavier's players admit that they don't feel like their team has "clicked" yet.
"I feel like something may be off," Sumner said. "At times, you can see we're clicking, like a couple of possessions back-to-back, it's just not through a whole half. It's in spurts. We still have to figure out what's going on. We all gel well, so I don't know. We're still getting better every day so that's what we need to work on."
The question now for Xavier is whether winning these close games while not playing well is a good sign for things to come when the Musketeers do get in sync? Or, is the fact that they haven't gotten on track by this point of the season a major concern in itself?
On the bright side, they've put themselves in a good position in terms of their resume. They haven't suffered a bad loss yet while playing against the country's third-toughest schedule, and they're one very winnable game against Eastern Washington away from heading into Big East play with a 10-2 record and with the Big East exceeding preseason expectations as a conference. Plus, there may well be something to be said for finding a way to win these close games.
"It shows that even when we're not on top of our game we can still close games," Bluiett said. "I think that's a good sign and a good feeling for us to know that we're capable of doing that. We just don't want to keep putting ourselves in these situations."
On the other hand, concerns are growing with each passing game that the same issues continue to reappear. Sumner and JP Macura haven't consistently been able to provide ample star power to complement Bluiett. Sumner hasn't shown any improvement with his jump-shooting or his decision-making from last year to this point, and his 3.4 turnovers per game seem to be getting in his head (he committed six on Sat.). The team is shooting 32.3 percent from 3-point range (5-for-17, 29.4% on Saturday night). The bench is providing nothing, particularly against Wake Forest. And, then, there's the missed free throws, turnovers and general erratic play at the end of close games that have made both wins and losses an adventure this year.
Myles Davis is going to be back in the near future. It's reasonable to think he'll provide a boost and improve some of those issues. However, it's far from a guarantee considering his current situation, and he's not going to instantly make all of those problems go away.
Aside from Davis' return, there's not much to point to in terms of ways for the Musketeers to improve other than simply playing better. Without the bench players stepping up, Mack and his staff lack options for shuffling the lineup. And it's not like there have been glaring weaknesses that opponents have exploited consistently. Rather, it's been mostly self-imposed mistakes and missed shots that have led to XU's less-than-impressive play.
That makes this Xavier team a difficult but interesting one to analyze.
One thing is for certain… there's as much intrigue, tension and storyline potential surrounding this team as any in the country heading into conference play.