CINCINNATI (AP)—A few weeks ago, there was speculation that Xavier might run the table in the Atlantic 10 and win its third straight regular-season title without a blemish. Now, the Musketeers are just trying to hold on.
Three losses in the last five games—all on the road—have left the 19th-ranked Musketeers with only a half-game lead atop the league. The title is still in their control, given how the schedule plays out.
The question is whether Xavier (22-5) can regroup in time.
“There are certain things that made us a good team for so long,” coach Sean Miller said. “Our defense was very solid, and we won doing things a certain way. Clearly we’ve hit a couple of bumps in the road.
“I’ll also tell you that maybe minus two teams playing college basketball, everyone experiences the bump in the road. We had it for a long time; I think we’ve lost it recently. And now we’re on that quest daily to get it back and be tough down the stretch.”
Some of the damage is likely to stick. The Musketeers’ NCAA tournament seeding will take a hit because of those losses at Duquesne, Dayton and Charlotte. There’s enough time left to win the A10 title and embellish their credentials for a favorable seed, but there’s no margin for error.
At 10-3 in league play, Xavier has a half-game lead over Dayton and Temple. Those two play Saturday at Dayton, so one of them will drop. Dayton then comes to the Cintas Center on March 5 with its astounding streak of futility: The Flyers are 0-23 in Cincinnati since 1981.
First, the Musketeers have to break their own losing streak in road games. Their chance comes Thursday night in Philadelphia against Saint Joseph’s (14-12, 7-5), which has lost its last four games overall.
Another stumble and their overriding goals are trouble.
“Their basketball is of the highest quality,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “It’s a beautiful thing for the league that they have lost three road games because it shows how hard it is to win on the road in college basketball. And no one is immune to that.”
For the first half of the season, the Musketeers thrived on the road. They played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, and rose to No. 7 in the rankings because they showed a lot of poise in tough surroundings.
Xavier has beaten Missouri, Virginia Tech and Memphis in Puerto Rico, and Cincinnati, Virginia and LSU on the road. All of them followed a pattern.
“How did we do it?” Miller said. “No one was in a shootout. We won with defense. When that drops on our team this year, we’re very vulnerable.”
The offense has been a work in progress because of the lack of experience. The Musketeers returned five key players from their Elite Eight team, but the bench was full of freshmen. Three of them—center Kenny Frease and guards Terrell Holloway and Brad Redford—have grown into roles as the season went along, improving the offense.
Holloway, the only true point guard on the team, has regressed recently. In the last four games, Holloway has gone 2-for-18 from the field with five points, four assists and five turnovers, costing him the starting job. Frease has fought through a sprained right ankle that limited his effectiveness.
When the defense slipped as well, Xavier started to slide.
“The misconception three weeks ago that Xavier was going to roll right through this conference is not reality,” Miller said. “We’re not that much better. We’re different.”
Miller has emphasized defense in practice, and seems to be getting results. Xavier played solid defense for the first 30 minutes of a 71-53 win over George Washington on Sunday. Now, Xavier wants to see if it can keep it up at Saint Joseph’s.
“We’ve been struggling on the road and we’ve really got to be ready to take it to them, especially in that first four minutes,” center Jason Love said. “Show them that we’re there and we’re ready.”