What looked nearly impossible just a week ago has come to fruition. The Xavier Musketeers are now very much on the bubble and in danger of missing the tournament.
Xavier suffered its sixth straight loss Wednesday night, 95-84, to Marquette at the Cintas Center. Andrew Rowsey led the Golden Eagles with 20 points as they hit 12-of-21 from 3-point range and scored 25 points off of 14 XU turnovers. Marquette's 95 points marked the most scored by a Xavier opponent in Cintas Center history.
"We haven't had much of a resiliency all year," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "When teams punch us in the mouth, we just keep getting punched. That hasn't been the character of teams I've coached in the past. This one has been dealt some weird adversity throughout the year and we haven't handled it very well - you know, runs that the other team makes, responses that we need to make - but we have an opportunity to try to get better at it and fix it on Saturday."
JP Macura scored 20 to lead Xavier. RaShid Gaston finished with 16 points and seven boards and Malcolm Bernard had 13 points and five boards in their final games in Xavier uniforms.
Trevon Bluiett had one of his worst performances in a while. He finished with 15 points but seven of them came in the final five minutes when the game was already out of hand. He struggled to find any type of rhythm on offense, settled for a lot of tough shots, and looked like he might have been hobbled by his bad ankle again.
The Musketeers haven't been booted from the NCAA tournament field of 68 yet. They were slotted as the second 9 seed by BracketMatrix.com before the Marquette loss. This loss puts them squarely on the bubble and avoiding a loss at DePaul on Wednesday night is absolutely necessary for a chance at an at-large bid.
The problem now is that they've fallen all the way to a 7 seed in the Big East tournament, meaning they'll have to play 10th-seeded DePaul again in the first round at Madison Square Garden next Wednesday night at 9:30 pm.
A loss in either game would likely eliminate them from consideration for an at-large bid. If they win both, they may still be sweating on Selection Sunday with other bubble teams performing well the last few nights, but they should be in the tournament. A second win at the Big East tournament would be highly advisable.
Familiar issues reappeared for the Musketeers from the opening tip Wednesday night as they committed three turnovers and made just 2-of-6 field goal attempts in the first four-minute war. During the next war, they let their offensive frustrations carry over to the defensive end as they lost Marquette's best shooters multiple times and the Golden Eagles took advantage by sinking three 3-pointers to take a 21-12 lead into the under 12-minute media timeout.
"Guys have to be able to handle pressure," Mack said. "This is Division I basketball. You have to at least not throw an interception. Take a five-second count, throw a short pass to a teammate… we did that in the second half. Turnovers have been our undoing on the offensive end. It's no secret we don't have a plethora of guards right now but we have to figure out a way to take better care of the ball."
The miscues continued as they finished the first half with nine turnovers and Marquette took advantage by outscoring them 13-0 in second chance points. Not surprisingly, 13 points also marked the spread between the two teams at halftime, 44-31.
Despite not being a ballhandler or having a high usage rate, Kaiser Gates turned the ball over five times before intermission. He finished with five points on 1-of-1 shooting, three assists, and no rebounds.
"He was trying to do too much. It's plain and simple," Mack said. "He's out there taking six or seven dribbles and changing directions. I don't know where that's coming from. If he does that in practice, we would instantly stop him and say, 'what are you doing?' He turns himself into a poor player when he starts (doing that) out there. He has to be efficient, take open shots, drive straight lines on bad closeouts, and then he's got to get on the glass which he didn't tonight. He's got to be much better at taking care of the basketball."
The game was over from there. The Musketeers didn't quit entirely. They had a few stretches in the second half that brought the fans to their feet, but those were always answered by more Marquette runs. The closest Xavier got within the Golden Eagles during the second half was eight points after an and-one by Sean O'Mara just inside the 13-minute mark.
The story was the same one Xavier fans have seen the last three games since Bluiett returned.
They played tough against Villanova until he injured his ankle. While he was out, they didn't have much of a chance at Providence or Seton Hall. Now, that he's returned they still don't seem to have enough to seriously compete in the Big East.
Enough energy. Enough skill. Enough defense. Enough experience. Enough of anything.
The lack of depth is an obvious, glaring issue. With this roster being what it is sans Myles Davis and Edmond Sumner, being worn down can't be an excuse for this team, yet it's the most logical way to explain the discrepancy between what we saw in the two wins against Seton Hall and Creighton after Sumner was injured and what we've seen from the Musketeers over the last few games. It's also the hardest aspect to fix.
"I'm sure they are (gassed)," Mack said. "But I would think the will to win would be well above their gassing, if you will."
The fate of Xavier's season now likely comes down to beating DePaul twice. And, after the last two weeks, there's no reason to think that's a given.
"A lot of times when you go through experiences, they change you. They move you," Mack said. "This group, for whatever reason, hasn't responded. And I don't know if it will change to be quite honest. It's sort of up to the guys in the locker room at this point. We're going to keep coaching them, we're going to keep preparing, but ultimately it rests in the hands of those guys in the jerseys if they want it to change.
The Musketeers will have to find enough to get it done if they want to go dancing in two weeks.