But it turned out that as choirboys, the Musketeers were miserable basketball players, losing five of their next six games and falling from No. 8 to out of the polls altogether. The easiest way for them to be a nationally contending team again is to act only slightly less villainous than they were on Dec. 10, when everything fell apart. Xavier needs to take the risk of being mean again.
And so it was the goal of Musketeers guard Mark Lyons, in Saturday's mildly cathartic 67-59 win at Fordham, to get the Musketeers back to being "the tough and nasty team that our program is known for."
Ever since the post-Cincy news conference, in which neither Lyons nor his backcourt co-star, Tu Holloway, expressed any remorse about their roles as instigators in the fight, the Musketeers have looked like cowering, confused shells of themselves. The post-fight narrative (and all of the forced apologies that ensued) dragged on them greatly, showing through in unexpected losses to Oral Roberts, Long Beach State, Hawaii, Gonzaga and La Salle.
Here at Rose Hill Gym, the abrasive, aggressive Lyons re-emerged. After scoring his first points, on an and-one layup with 16:46 left, he stared down Fordham fans behind the basket. After a made three a few minutes later, he pointed at a few Rams fans sitting in courtside seats nearby (after making a big 3-pointer in the second half, he would turn and make the "three goggles" in the direction of Fordham's bench). Also in the first half, he got into a verbal exchange with a few Rams fans sitting across from the Xavier bench, clapping a few times in the face of a student, Maxxie Goldstein, and asking her -- according to Goldstein -- "Are we gonna go?"
And then there was the moment where things nearly spun out of control. With 11:08 left in the first half, Lyons stole the ball from Fordham reserve Lamount Samuell and was fouled before he could lead a fast break. It was not a hard or cheap foul, but Lyons followed Samuell upcourt to talk trash about the steal, and Lyons put his face within inches of Samuell's, to ensure that the entire message would be heard. (Lyons said he was saying "Gimme that," wanting the ball back, but there seemed to be a good deal of profanity mixed in.)
A player with less restraint than Samuell might have shoved Lyons away, and then who knows what might have happened? In this case, a referee stepped in and gave both players technical fouls, and Musketeers coach Chris Mack gave Lyons a spell on the bench.
None of these antics were endearing, but it coincided with Lyons having his best game since the "incident" -- a team-high 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, plus two steals, in 27 minutes. He was simultaneously the best and most obnoxious player on the floor, and Xavier needed him on the floor: In an eight-point win, it was plus-20 with Lyons in the lineup and negative-12 with him out.
"I'm getting back to my ways," Lyons said. "I'm gonna be tough, I'm gonna talk, I'm gonna do what I gotta do. Because when I wasn't, we were losing."
(Meanwhile, Holloway, the team's leading scorer on the season with 18.1 points per game, didn't put up a single point in 31 minutes. And although he was praised for his sensible ball distribution -- five assists against two turnovers -- he seemed to be giving the game the silent treatment despite the presence of around 70 friends and family members from his hometown of Hempstead, N.Y. The kid who was once among the most assertive and clutch point guards in the country is still in a funk.)
Xavier is 10-5 after this win, 1-1 in the Atlantic 10, and still has plenty of time to get back on track. But we did not see a team that was running 100-percent smoothly at Fordham. The early-December version of the Musketeers would have won this game by 20, not eight; without Lyons' clutch baskets and the excellent defensive work done on Rams star Chris Gaston (10 points on 3-of-11 shooting) by Andre Walker, Xavier would have been in danger of an upset. After the game, Lyons, who's from Schenectady, N.Y., gathered with a small group of family and friends, and his uncle Jeffrey Nunnally summed up the Musketeers' predicament thusly:
"These guys aren't just trying to play -- they're battling an image," he said. "They want to play aggressive, but they feel like they have to be careful, because it might be interpreted as negative, by people who say they're acting like bullies or street guys. I think they're having a hard time with it, thinking about, 'How do we play up in guys' faces, without people taking it the wrong way? How do you deal with that?'"
Lyons, their second-leading scorer (16.8 ppg) and best on-ball defender, is figuring out how to cope, even though he acknowledged, in regards to his technical, that refs "have radar" on the Musketeers. And it turned out that the tough-and-nasty initiative came from Mack, who told them it needed to be their defensive identity once again.
"I'm not going to let anybody steal that from us," he said, the insinuation being that all the scrutiny in the wake of the fight had briefly taken that identity away. The fact that they held Fordham to 37.7 percent was a turn in the right direction.
Mack set an example of toughness for Xavier before the game even started. In the team's practice on Friday, he joined the layup line, executed one dunk, and then when he went up for a second, tore the patellar tendon in his left knee. The former Musketeer player coached through the pain, standing on the sideline wearing a large brace under his dress pants. When Mack walked onto the court during timeouts, he couldn't bend the leg at all; he had to drag it along with him, while grimacing.
Mack entered the postgame news conference on crutches, and said his surgery is scheduled for 8 a.m. Sunday in Cincinnati -- after which the coach, like his team, can begin the long process of getting back to his old self.