CINCINNATI — The familiar names, the ones who sparked two Sweet 16 appearances in the last three years and some very forgettable headlines starting last December, are gone.
Turns out Xavier basketball is going to be OK. And maybe better than that.
The new Musketeers scored a statement victory over Butler on Tuesday afternoon, one that should raise a few eyebrows regionally, in the Atlantic 10 and nationally. The additions of Butler and VCU to the league have raised the Atlantic 10’s profile, and the Bulldogs came to Cintas Center on Tuesday as the more known and proven commodity.
Xavier dominated from start to finish, winning 62-47. Jeff Robinson led all scorers with 17 and had eight rebounds, and Travis Taylor had 15 and nine rebounds. The Xavier lead reached 14 in the first half and swelled to 20 with 5:28 to go. There were neither signs of a Butler comeback nor anything flukish about the way Xavier, picked ninth in the official Atlantic 10 preseason poll, did it.
“We wanted to make a statement that we’re not the underdogs,” Robinson said. “A lot of people are saying we’ll have a down season or won’t have as good a season as Xavier had before. But we have a great group of guys.”
The Musketeers are just two games into their journey, and plenty is new. Taylor is Xavier’s returning leading scorer — and he averaged just 4.5 points last year. Everybody except reserve sharpshooter Brad Redford is in a new role. Three seniors moved on, and gifted players Mark Lyons (Arizona) and Dez Wells (Maryland) are playing elsewhere. In addition, two highly-touted freshmen are sitting out the season to concentrate on academics and Isiaiah Philmore’s Xavier debut is delayed until late next week due to an NCAA paperwork oversight when he was at Towson.
The guys who are here seemed anxious to show what the Musketeers have, not at all burdened by what they don’t. On Tuesday, they turned in a dominating defensive effort, shared the ball and ended up looking a lot like Xavier teams of the past.
“I love coaching our team,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “I was taking a lot of bullets in the offseason. We may not be as a talented … but I’ve always thought effort beats talent.”
The relentless effort one started with sophomore point guard Dee Davis, who’s generously listed at 6-foot, but to Butler, when it watches tape, it will look like he was 6-10. Davis directed an efficient offense and played a big role in holding Butler sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke to seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.
Like every other team in the country playing its second game, the Bulldogs have to get better. Butler went without a fast-break point and was just 4-of-18 from beyond the arc.
“Xavier was the better team,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “Better team, better coached, just better. Not really even close.”
Stevens went on to say “it would have been a shame if we had dropkicked in a couple 3-pointers and won. Xavier deserved it.”
He wasn’t exaggerating.
Roles still need to be defined, plenty needs to be refined, and considering this was a previously-scheduled non-conference game, Xavier didn’t really win anything but confidence. The Musketeers know they need to get better, and they will. Freshman Semaj Christon, who hasn’t been practicing due to an infection, showed in his debut why people are so excited he’s playing in his hometown. Davis showed command, Redford nailed three 3-pointers, Robinson showed range on his jump shot, and list went on.
“This group has a synergy amongst themselves,” Mack said. “Do I enjoy coming to practice every day? Yes. I can’t always say that’s been the case.
“I don’t know if it’s a statement game. We respect the heck out of Butler. It’s not hard for our kids to get up for a team like Butler.”
Mack, more than anyone else, is anxious to put last year to bed for good. Scoring this kind of win now, in this kind of fashion, can help that. So can Christon, Robinson, Taylor, etc. Mack said Davis “was phenomenal,” and he was right. Christon had eight of Xavier’s 14 assists. Stevens said Robinson stepping out to the perimeter to score “was very high level.”
That’s the level where Xavier is used to playing, even if these specific players aren’t used to their leading roles. If we really learned anything from Tuesday, it’s that the Musketeers aren’t going to be under the radar long.
“With all the preseason stuff, (Xavier) played with a chip on their shoulder,” Stevens said. “They’re good. I see them having a great year. I kind of laugh at the ninth-place thing.”