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Defense is the big concern for Xavier entering a week-long break

January 26, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Chris Mack didn’t mince words. After praising Providence, who beat his Xavier team 81-72 on Saturday, he started in on his team with their defensive play, and he continued and finished with that as well. It’s clear he wasn’t happy with his team’s defense, and that it wasn’t just on Saturday that such was the case.

“I thought our defense was terrible. It was pathetic,” said the Xavier head coach. “It was not who we’ve been, but it’s who we’ve been lately, and it needs to change, because nobody is going to compete for a Big East championship, an NCAA Tournament berth, and all the things we have outlined for our program this year if we’re playing games in the 80s and 90s.”

Opponents are shooting below 42 percent from the field on the season. But that number is up in Big East play, including Providence’s 44.1 percent on Saturday. They are also allowing opponents to shoot over 43 percent on three-pointers in Big East play, with Providence going 8-20 from beyond the arc. The Musketeers’ trademark isn’t forcing turnovers, but they’ve also done that at a lesser clip of late. Providence’s six turnovers on Saturday marked the fifth time in nine games that a Xavier opponent gave the ball away a single-digit number of times. That comes after they did so just once in the first 11 games.

“It really doesn’t matter right now if we play Providence or if we play a local YMCA team,” said Mack. “Teams score 50 in a half, they score 46 in a half, they hit hook shots, they hit three-point shots. We just give it to them any way they want it.”

Xavier has had to do a lot of growing this season. This isn’t a team full of seniors, as only two play anything resembling significant minutes, and several holdovers have had to grow into more significant roles from last season. In addition, they have to deal with eight new teams in their new conference, whereas the Big East holdovers only have to learn about three new teams. (Xavier was in the Atlantic 10 with fellow newcomer Butler last season, so there is a little familiarity there.)

The Musketeers have four newcomers either starting or playing significant minutes, and a rust factor is apparent at times with two who didn’t play last year due to academics in guard Myles Davis and forward Jalen Reynolds. Though not very athletic, Davis is a player you leave open at your peril, while Reynolds hasn’t earned a lot of consistent minutes yet but has great potential as he’s long and athletic, especially for the power forward spot.

“Those guys are going to be like the stock market a little bit,” said Mack. “They’re going to be up and down, as most freshmen are going to be, but they’re a huge part of our team, and it’s on them to come to practice every single day and want to improve, and I’ve seen that.”

Perhaps with that youth, the Musketeers got a little complacent after some winning. Xavier won their first five games of the season, then later swept through December to begin an eight-game winning streak that included their first three Big East games. Mack saw potential issues at times as they were winning, and the inability to solve them has hurt them recently and can hurt them again later.

“Our mentality has changed,” said Mack. “We’ve won games, so you don’t feel like your hand was burned on the stove and so you keep touching it. Hey, we won, we’re fine. We’re not fine.”

Unlike in many past years, Xavier played a very home-heavy non-conference schedule this time around. The slate included just one true road game (a win at Alabama) along with four at neutral sites, including three at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Musketeers lost all three in The Bahamas, the first time they played away from home on the season, and that stretch was sandwiched in between the aforementioned winning streaks. The Big East schedule likewise started out home-heavy, as their first three games were at the Cintas Center. They took advantage of it, as they have not lost at home all season. Now, they just completed the second game of a stretch with seven of ten on the road, one that will test this team.

While more road games will add to the challenge, what’s at hand for this team is something bigger: defensive improvement is needed. That’s the case whether they are playing in Cincinnati or somewhere else.

“We didn’t stick to our defensive principles,” said junior forward Justin Martin, who led the Musketeers on Saturday with 19 points. “At the beginning of the season, we were executing better than we are now, so we’ve just got to make adjustments. It starts in practice.”

Xavier has a week to work on getting back to being the defensive team they were earlier in the season, as they don’t play again until Seton Hall comes to Cincinnati next Saturday. No one could have known the timing of the week off would potentially be good, but it’s here, and they have a chance to regroup.

“It’s a great time to get locked in and get back to playing defense the way we know how to play defense, the way we started out the season playing defense, getting stops and rebounds,” said sophomore guard Semaj Christon. “I feel like this week is a great week for us to bounce back and get our heads back to where we need to be.”

Mack finished up the press conference much the way he began. While coaches constantly emphasize defense, Mack noted that Xavier has had a defensive system in place for a long time, well before he got there and before he became the head coach. His team is playing well enough offensively to win, as they are scoring 80 points per game in Big East play and nearly 76 a game overall. And he sees the trend being in the wrong direction as well.

“We’re not good,” said Mack as he went on to elaborate. “I mean that in the sense of, we haven’t arrived. We have to get better. We have to get back to who we’ve been for a long time defensively.”

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