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March mainstay Xavier still finding its identity for this season

The Musketeers had beaten Butler, their identical twin in so many ways, 51-49. Xavier's Mark Lyons had made both sides of a 1-and-1 with 3.4 seconds remaining. Butler's Shelvin Mack had missed what would have been a buzzer-beating, game-winning three, and that was that. Two superstars of the Cinderella set played to a 39-minute draw. Xavier survived.

"Great mental toughness,'' Xavier coach Chris Mack said. His team shot miserably, 32 percent from the field. Butler shot worse, 31.3 percent. Combined, the two teams were 5-for-36 from three-point range. Each had a chance at the end, because each played defense, and because winning is what each does.

Butler lost Gordon Hayward, near-hero of last year's national title game, to the NBA. Xavier lost Jordan Crawford, the most dynamic single-season scorer in school history. That's how it works in college basketball, even at Xavier and Butler. They're losing underclassmen to the first round of the draft? They've truly arrived.

The Gordon and Jordan Show might have been more entertaining. But no more revealing. Xavier and Butler don't win lots of games with rosters packed with high school wonders. They win by playing the way they played Thursday night.

They don't reload at Xavier. There is no chorus line of Brandon Knights and Jared Sullingers anticipating stardom. But the institutional memory is good. Winning is in the genes there. So while nobody was going to show up and be Jordan Crawford, The Sequel, the Musketeers remain adept at coping. They manage. Before they reached the Sweet 16 last season, for the third year in a row, they started 6-4.

They're 6-2 now. They've lost to Bellarmine. But they are still Xavier, which matters. "They're winners,'' Mack said. "They've been on winning teams.''

What the Musketeers are doing now is classic early-season mirror-gazing. Who are we? More important: Who can we be? They don't have Crawford, who averaged 20 points per game last year and 29 in three NCAA tournament games, including 32 in XU's double-overtime loss to Kansas State, the de facto, quasi-amateur basketball game of the year.

They're juggling parts and trying to find lost points. Holloway was seen as Crawford's heir, but he is only 6-feet tall, and no one not named Jameer Nelson is going to step lightly into Crawford's shoes. Holloway is a streaky shooter. He was 2-for-11 against Butler.

Xavier hasn't always filled its lineups with All-Americas. But it has contributed more than its share of talent to the NBA. David West was national player of the year; James Posey has two championship rings. This winter, the star cupboard is bare. It is a team of complementary players, whose success will be determined by defense and floor burns, not highlights on SportsCenter.

"We have to work more this year on the offensive end,'' said Mack. "We have to be a different team offensively. We're learning how the parts work together.''

Senior guard Dante Jackson was more blunt. "We're the worst 5-2 team in the country,'' he said before the Butler win. "Offensively, we're not in sync. We've over-dribbling, we're trying to do too much.'' It's nothing more than separation anxiety.

The Musketeers make a conscious effort not to grieve over who isn't on their team. "Where do you miss Jordan's presence the most?'' I asked Jackson. "Crawford?'' Jackson answered.

Probably, Jackson didn't think I was referring to Michael. His response was a deliberate reminder that this Xavier team isn't that one. As center Kenny Frease added, "College basketball players come and go. It's a thing of the past.''

Sure is. But watching the Musketeers grind gears on offense is a reminder that success at a place like Xavier, while all but assumed, is also fragile. It requires the sort of resourcefulness at all levels -- coaching, recruiting, playing -- not demanded at tall-cotton places such as Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, etc.

Mark Lyons, a 6-1 sophomore guard, won the game for Xavier Thursday night. To do it, he had to play 37 minutes of in-your-jersey defense and endure a 1-for-10 shooting night. Lyons calmly dropped in two free throws with 3.4 seconds to go, the difference in the 51-49 win. "A very confident kid (who) stuck with it,'' Mack said. "He's battling shooting demons, he's busting it defensively.'' And he makes the free throws.

Xavier is not as talented as last year. The Musketeers are not a sexy Sweet 16 pick. At least not yet. Between November and March, college basketball can be a long, cold plod. The regular season is the appetizer, Lenny Kravitz opening for the Rolling Stones. How many Big Mondays until Madness?

What keeps it compelling is watching teams evolve. Seeing what coaches do with who they have. A mark of good coaching is not how a team starts a season. It's the way it ends one. Coaches steal the footlights in March; they earn their money much earlier than that. Seeing how Xavier's Chris Mack pulls the usual from this group will be compelling.

We got a taste Thursday night, against a similarly accomplished and proud Butler team. December isn't March. Xavier isn't the team now it will be then. "If they understood what made us successful tonight, we'll continue to improve and be successful,'' Mack said.

Time will tell, and time often is kind to the Musketeers. See them in March.