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CINCINNATI, OH - No team in the country has faced more scrutiny over the last month than Xavier has, and its all due to 9.4 seconds that everyone in Cincinnati wishes they could take back.
The Crosstown Punchout.
While the Bearcats used the fallout from the Brawl Seen 'Round the World to discover that they were able to effectively play small-ball, Xavier struggled. Despite having their full roster available after just four games -- and their talented back court back in the fold after just two -- the Musketeers entered Atlantic 10 play having lost four of five and promptly dropped their league opener to La Salle in ugly fashion, needing a late rally to make the final score look closer than the game was.
They followed that up with a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Fordham, which begged the question -- what's wrong with Xavier?
The answer was beautifully simple: the Musketeers lost their swagger.
As cliche as that sounds, its the truth. Xavier is a team built on toughness. They rely on their ability to make things difficult for their opponents on the defensive end of the floor and the confidence of Mark Lyons and Tu Holloway to use their immense ability to create scoring chances, either for themselves or for their teammates.
"We lost our swagger, our toughness, the confidence we had," Tu Holloway told me after Xavier's dominating 78-50 win over Duquesne at the Cintas Center. "We were worried about the referees calling games tough on us and things like that. It was in our heads, as much as I stay away from reading blogs and I don't read my twitter, but its in your head. You hear people saying things, you even got your own family calling you asking you what's going on so its tough."
Winning is contagious, but losing is as well. Xavier dropped a couple of games in Maui and all of a sudden the aura of invincibility that surrounded that program this season was gone. Remember, this is the team that came back from 10 down at Vanderbilt and won. They erased a 19 point deficit against Purdue in the final 10 minutes. They won at Butler and absolutely destroyed Cincinnati.
But once the losses started piling up, a seed of doubt started creeping. Instead of believing that, regardless of the predicament that they found themselves in, they would win, Xavier's mindset became that of the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox -- how are we going to blow this one? What's going to happen that costs us a win this time?
After Wednesday night's performance, is it time for Xavier to start quoting Jay-Z: "I guess I got my swagger back"?
It may be too early to say.
But as far as Xavier is concerned, who they were in December is irrelevant.
"I'm not going to sit there and try to compare and contrast. We're getting better," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. "I think we've taken a step forward these last couple of games. Guys are playing with renewed energy. We're sharing the ball better than we did the first eight games. Who cares about comparisons? We've gotta worry about St. Bonaventure on Saturday."
At this point, the past isn't where Xavier's focus lies, its the process. Its about taking the next step and building on the small successes that come out of every game.
It started on December 11th, the day after the fight.
"The first step was after that day," Holloway said. "Every day has been a process of healing and getting back. The steps was when we started A-10 play."
"Every game is a step from here on out."
On Saturday at Fordham, the step that Xavier took was simply getting a win under their belt, proving to themselves that they weren't the team that lost five of six games. The same way that a shooter tries to get to the foul line when he's struggling because seeing the ball go through the hoop can flip that switch, Xavier simply needed to get one in the win column.
"That felt good. We needed that," Lyons said after the win on Saturday. Mack followed that up by saying "it feels good to win. Mark hit the nail on the head."
Wednesday was the next step. Xavier's defense was impenetrable in the first half, as they held the Dukes to just 16 points on 6-23 shooting from the field while forcing seven turnovers. It wasn't until Sean Johnson scored Duquesne's 16th point on a backdoor layup with 1:45 left in the half that Xavier actually gave up a clean look at the rim. TJ McConnell, Duquesne's star point guard, was completely shut down as Holloway held him to just four points and four assists.
It was more than just an individual performance, however. Xavier was finally focused and communicating on defense again.
"We were just more locked in and focused," Andre Walker said. "We always know what we're supposed to do but our minds wander. Tonight we made a concerted effort that we were going to be in the gaps and talking."
"You just feel more confident when you're guarding somebody and you hear tour teammate say they got your help. ... It was just good to be out there with these guys and hearing everybody talk."
"We need to be a disciplined team, one that pays attention to detail," he said. "Anybody can see it on film, but being able to get your kids to execute is a different thing. I think we learned from the La Salle game and early on we got some stops to give our kids confidence we were doing it the right way."
"Early on in the year, we defended that way and you saw the results. I think we took another step forward tonight to being that team."
The other area that Xavier improved on Wednesday was in their front court. The Musketeer's have a big, athletic front line and will rarely be at a size disadvantage when they step on the floor. The problem is that they have struggled capitalizing on that size advantage.
Duquesne isn't a big team by any stretch of the imagination, but Xavier didn't give the Dukes a chance. Kenny Frease and Jeff Robinson played as well as they have all season long, finishing with a combined 23 points and 12 boards, nine of which came on the offensive end of the floor, while shooting 9-11 from the field. The majority of that damage came early in the first half as Xavier asserted complete control over the game.
Think about this: for a team whose talent centers around their back court, Xavier finished with 54 of their 78 points in the paint.
And while that number is impressive, it all comes back to the play of Holloway and Lyons.
"It was all set by our guards being able to get into the lane," Mack said. "Our guards are as good as anybody in the country when they are able to get into the lane and create help-up situations and drive and kick situations, times where box outs are out of position."
Contrary to popular belief, Holloway is not the most talented player on this team. Lyons is. He's a better shooter, he's a better slasher and he's more athletic. But Holloway is their most important, and he is at his best when the role he plays is as the facilitator offensively. He's also the best perimeter defender that Mack has at his disposal.
Its no coincidence that on the night that Holloway has 11 assists, one turnover and completely shuts down the opponent's star guard, Xavier has their most impressive performance since the brawl.
"It starts with defense for us," Holloway said. "Its not about us scoring 70-some points the way we did tonight, its about stopping guys and being able to get runs."
As good as the Musketeers looked tonight, beating Duquesne by 28 won't define their season.
Its just another step in the right direction.
"We're still on a long process getting back to where we were," Holloway said. "Hopefully we can get back to that point."