Angel Delgado scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds Wednesday night as Seton Hall dealt Xavier its fourth-straight loss, 71-64, at the Prudential Center in Newark.
It's been a tough stretch for Xavier fans, who have watched their team tumble from a preseason top 10 ranking. The reality is that the tone of the season changed when Edmond Sumner went down, compounding the loss of Myles Davis. When the Musketeers lost to Villanova at home two weeks ago and Trevon Bluiett was injured on the same day, the ensuing three-game road trip no longer mattered.
The goal for Xavier changed. Controlling the narrative and surviving became the new realistic objectives.
There are now two ways that Xavier's season can go: The Musketeers can back their way into one of the final at-large bids for the NCAA tournament (maybe even miss the tournament if they lose out) or they can take advantage of the three winnable games ahead of them to close their regular season and start scaring the hell out of teams slated for top seeds in the Big Dance.
A win over DePaul is a must. A win over Butler would be notable. A 3-0 stretch (which would include a home win over Marquette as well) would send a strong message to the selection committee that XU is still clearly one of the best teams in a strong Big East conference when Bluiett is healthy.
Outside of a battle with cramps in the second half, Bluiett looked good in his return from the sprained ankle injury that held him out of the last two games at Providence and Marquette. There was some rust and he was searching to find his rhythm again, but physically he looked healthy and was able to play 38 minutes in the loss. He finished with 14 points (5-12 FG, 2-7 3PT) and three boards.
"He's just getting back but he changes our team," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It's not necessarily just Trevon and what he produces, which is a lot for us, but it just makes everybody else's job easier on the offensive end. A couple of guys need to take advantage of it. At times, it felt like we were playing four versus five offensively and we just have to play better as an offensive unit both when we get zoned and when we get manned."
JP Macura led XU with 22 points (7-17 FG, 3-10 3PT) to go with five boards in 34 minutes.
Their effort wasn't the Musketeers' problem on Wednesday. It never is with this team. They played hard until the final horn, even when trailing by double figures with under two minutes to play.
If one were to try and pinpoint the aspect deserving the most blame for their struggles this season, it'd be their offense. From inexplicable shooting struggles to chemistry issues to incredibly frustrating turnovers, Team 95 just hasn't been able to put it together consistently on the offensive end.
That was again the case against Seton Hall. The Pirates went on an 11-4 run from the under 16 to the under 12-minute media timeouts. Xavier had taken a 41-38 lead into the under 16 timeout but turned the ball over on a five-second call coming out of the break, which led to a three by Myles Powell for Seton Hall. Quentin Goodin then traveled on the next play and Delgado scored in the post to give the Pirates the lead, 43-41. By the next media stoppage, they led 48-43.
The Musketeers had another offensive lapse a few minutes later as they went scoreless from the 7:26 to the 1:59 mark of the second half, sealing their fate. Seton Hall went on an 8-0 run during that stretch to take a 63-53 lead.
Xavier's unforced turnovers and porous defense emerged again as players became frustrated during their prolonged scoring droughts in the second half.
"Our offense for a vast part of the second half wasn't very good," Mack said. "We have a tough time scoring right now. We're just… we're having a tough time scoring. And it's affected our defense. Our defense wasn't great but it was good enough to win. That stretch hurt us for a while when the momentum swung the other way. We had about four or five minutes when the ball wasn't going in the hole for us."
If you're having a hard time understanding why Xavier isn't on the bubble at this point, a quick look at the resumes of the teams currently on the bubble should make it clear. For instance, Clemson and Wake Forest are two of the "first four out" according to BracketMatrix.com's latest update. Xavier beat both of those teams this season, Clemson at a neutral site and Wake Forest at home.
Clemson is 14-13 overall and 4-11 in the ACC, and Wake Forest is 16-12 and 7-9 in the ACC. The Tigers rank 61st in the RPI, 36th in KenPom, and their strength of schedule ranks 17th in the country. The Demon Deacons rank 41st in the RPI, 33rd in KenPom, and their strength of schedule ranks 15th in the country.
Just for reference, Xavier is 18-10 overall and 8-7 in the Big East. The Musketeers are ranked 20th in the RPI, 38 in KenPom, and their strength of schedule ranks sixth in the country. Shy of them losing at DePaul, it's hard to see a scenario in which one of those teams pass them up for an at-large bid.
Xavier is almost certainly in the tournament, but these next three games could drastically change how the Musketeers are viewed by fans and outsiders heading into the postseason.