NEW YORK CITY — Xavier head coach Chris Mack was visibly frustrated as he walked out of the locker room on Monday night, voicing his displeasure with some choice words at the way his team’s 58-57 loss to St. John’s came to an end.
Mack was angry at the sequence just before Myles Davis missed a potential game-winning shot, when Xavier’s Remy Abell fell to the floor in a heap with a St. John’s defender but didn’t get a foul call.
It's hard to fault the coach for being upset. Not when his team was one shot away from winning a pivotal late-season game between two teams squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, when his team was finally this close to winning a third consecutive game for the first time since December.
Instead, Xavier fell short, keeping alive its season-long search for consistency. Mack has said his team hasn’t yet learned to handle success. Coming off a big week, in which Xavier won at hated intra-city rival Cincinnati and blew the doors off then-No. 19 Butler, that seemed to be the case again on Monday in what Mack told the team was a “must-win game.”
“I think we did handle success better, but not good enough,” freshman guard Trevon Bluiett said. “Handling success would mean coming out with the win, so I think we still got to do a better job of that.”
Coming into the season, it appeared Xavier had the requisite talent to return to the tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2012. The program had its most touted recruiting class in years, led by Bluiett, who joined a returning core complete with a senior point guard in Dee Davis and a senior big man in Matt Stainbrook.
The offense has largely done its part, with Xavier entering Monday’s game first in the Big East in scoring at 75.7 points per game (St. John’s was third at 72.1). When XU is on its game, its ball movement is pristine and opponents can get overwhelmed, unable to combat the Musketeers’ ability to hit jumpers, score in transition and get points inside on the backs of Stainbrook and Jalen Reynolds.
It’s the other facets that have usually let Xavier down. At various times, the Musketeers have especially struggled with playing away from home and with their defense, leaving observers unsure what to expect in any given game. After Xavier fell to Big East bottom-feeder Creighton at home on Feb. 4, Mack said his team’s recent home struggles were “100 percent a leadership issue” and that he “didn’t know who's going to take charge of our team being ready to play.”
The Musketeers, though, have turned the corner to an extent since that defeat, going 4-2, with the only losses coming at the hands of St. John’s. Mack said as much Monday.
“I think our team has gotten better,” the coach said. “We’ve become a much better defensive team. We played a team tonight that’s very difficult to guard for us … Our leadership’s gotten better, but as an entire unit, and I put myself in that category, we just didn’t get the job done.”
And it’s not entirely fair to point to Monday’s game as evidence of same old Xavier, considering its competitiveness. An 11-0 Musketeer run to start the game gave way to a 22-15 deficit, with the Red Storm duo of Chris Obekpa and Sir’Dominic Pointer proving to be terrors in the paint. They combined for six first-half blocks and were clearly in the heads of Xavier’s rim attackers, leading to consistent transition opportunities and points for the Johnnies.
But Xavier battled back and had a chance to win at the end. As Bluiett said, nobody “outside the Xavier community” thought XU could beat Cincinnati, beat Butler and then beat St. John’s two days later on the road. Monday’s loss hurts because Xavier was so close to a crucial win that would’ve helped secure its spot in the field of 68.
St. John’s, on the other hand, can feel a lot better about its tournament chances, and it appears its players already do. At one point in the postgame press conference, guard D’Angelo Harrison looked at the media wearing a relieved look and mouthed, I’m so happy, I’m so happy. Beat Georgetown on Saturday, and the Red Storm can just about punch their ticket to the Big Dance.
Xavier has an opportunity for a signature win, too, when it takes on Villanova the same day. After missing a chance to squash its consistency issues on Monday, you can expect a bounce-back effort against the Wildcats—it’d be par for the course for this up-and-down team.
“I don’t really look into that,” Bluiett said of Xavier’s tournament chances. “That’s coach’s job, so from our standpoint, we’re looking at it like we still got to win games to get there. We’re not even in there yet.”
In the last week of February, the Musketeers are close to hitting their stride. It's uncertain if they’ll do so in time for the end of the season, but they won’t have to wait long to find out. March has a way of erasing such ambiguity.