Xavier needs better defense down the stretch

The Atlantic 10 conference is much improved this year. It’s also a more balanced league, which bodes well for Xavier heading into the season’s final month. Despite the Musketeers’ recent struggles, they entered February just a half-game out of first place.

Rhode Island’s stunning win at Dayton created a three-way tie at the top of the A-10 standings with UMass, La Salle and Saint Bonaventure at 5-2. Temple was 4-2, and Xavier was 5-3 coming off its win Jan. 28 at Charlotte.

Coach Chris Mack said the Musketeers need to hold serve at home and survive on the road. In the final week of January, Xavier did the reverse. The Musketeers lost at home to Saint Louis, then won a tight 74-70 contest at Charlotte.

To this point, the Musketeers have weathered the storm, but which version of the team will show up in February? The one that rolled to an 8-0 start and a top-10 ranking, or the one that lost five of six games in one stretch and was blown out at Dayton?

A few trends to follow:

Will Xavier’s perimeter defense improve? The Musketeers ranked first in the A-10 in 3-point field goal percentage defense through Jan. 29, but in losing two of three games, Xavier allowed opponents to shoot better than 38-percent from 3-point range, including 41.7 percent by Charlotte.

Can the Musketeers get back to playing tenacious defense for 40 minutes, as they did during the 8-0 start? Xavier ranked second in the A-10 in field-goal percentage, but that’s somewhat deceiving when you consider the 87 points they allowed in a loss at Dayton and 41 first-half points that led to the home loss to Saint Louis.

When will Tu Holloway, a player of the year candidate, emerge? Holloway began the season as one of the conference’s most hyped players. Recently, he’s become more adept at being a point guard, running the offense and distributing to teammates. Mack doesn’t want Holloway to settle for tough shots, but he’d prefer to see more aggressiveness at times from his senior.

Bottom line: Despite all that’s occurred in the past month, Xavier enters February in the hunt for an A-10 title and NCAA Tournament berth.

NOTES, QUOTES

A-10 home winning streak ends at 43 games

–Xavier’s Atlantic 10 Conference-record 43-game home winning streak against league opponents ended Jan. 25 with a 73-68 loss to Saint Louis. It was the Musketeers’ first A-10 loss at home since Feb. 28, 2006, when they fell to Saint Joseph’s.

–The Musketeers and Charlotte each grabbed 32 rebounds Jan. 28, extending Xavier’s streak to five straight games in which it failed to outrebound an opponent.

–Mark Lyons has taken charge of late. The junior guard led Xavier with 16.6 points per game through Jan. 29, good for second in the A-10. Lyons had scored 20 or more points in three of the past four games, including a career-high 27 in the loss to Saint Louis. He scored just seven points in the Jan. 28 win at Charlotte but contributed five assists and three steals.

BY THE NUMBERS: 77.4 percent — Junior F Jeff Robinson’s shooting percentage in a recent five-game stretch. Robinson was 24-for-31 from the field while averaging 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in 21.8 minutes in that stretch.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “There’s nobody right now that’s 8-0 in the conference, that’s 7-1. We’ve talked about that. It’s very, very wide open. For the most part, we play everybody that’s in contention. Our goal is to win this conference, and we’ve got a long way to go”. — Coach Chris Mack, on the Atlantic 10 Conference race.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–at George Washington, Feb. 1

KEY MATCHUPS: The Smith Center historically has been a tough venue for Xavier, but the Colonials, who lost nine of 10 in one stretch, have struggled. George Washington averages 61.8 points, last in the A-10. The Musketeers must play solid defense to keep the typically raucous crowd quiet. Senior G Tony Taylor leads the Colonials with 13.3 points per game.

–at Memphis, Feb. 4

KEY MATCHUPS: This would be a feather-in-the-cap victory for Xavier, but it won’t be easy against a Tigers squad that was ranked as high as eighth this season. Will Barton was pacing Memphis at 18.8 points per game through Jan. 29, including 35 percent from 3-point range. The Tigers were holding opponents to 66 points per game.

FUTURES MARKET: Junior F Travis Taylor scored eight points off the bench in the Jan. 28 win at Charlotte, mostly due to him being active without the ball. He was 3-for-4 from the field while grabbing three rebounds. It’s taken some time for Taylor to get comfortable after he sat out last year following his transfer from Monmouth. Length and athleticism make Taylor a valuable commodity for the Musketeers, and the team is hoping his development accelerates down the stretch.

PLAYER NOTES

–Senior C Kenny Frease and junior G Mark Lyons did not start the Saint Louis game Jan. 25 due to undisclosed reasons, but a lack of effort in practice the proceeding week was suggested. It was the first time this season that Frease and Lyons had not been in the starting lineup.

–Senior G Tu Holloway moved into 16th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 22 points in the loss to Saint Louis on Jan. 25. Holloway, who scored 17 points on Jan. 28 at Charlotte, ended January 12 points shy of 15th place, held by Lionel Chalmers (2000-04).

–Holloway eclipsed the 100-assist mark for the third straight season. He is one of just eight Xavier players to have three 100-assist seasons, the last being Gary Lumpkin and Lenny Brown (1995-99). He entered February needing just five assists to move into third place on the school’s career assists list.