Xavier within range of A-10 title, NCAA berth

Coach Chris Mack refused to apply too much significance to the Musketeers’ missed opportunity Feb. 4 at Memphis.

“We win a game like this and we lose the next seven, nobody cares,” he said.

Still, with Xavier’s NCAA Tournament prospects teetering on the bubble, the Musketeers needed to close out the Tigers. Xavier had an 11-point lead with less than seven minutes left but faltered down the stretch in a 74-68 loss.

Moving forward, Mack hopes to build off the first 34 minutes of the Feb. 4 game, which was played before 17,097 hostile fans and against a Memphis squad ranked in the top 25 of the RPI. Prior to the late meltdown, Xavier played with a level of energy and resolve that closely resembled the team that rolled to an 8-0 start and a top-10 ranking.

While losing on the road to a quality team like Memphis doesn’t hurt Xavier’s NCAA credentials, it doesn’t help either.

“This would have been a big game for us to win and add to our resume, but I don’t think it’s a bad loss by any means,” senior center Kenny Frease said. “If we can go on a little streak here, (the NCAA Tournament) is within our reach.”

Despite the ups and downs of the season, a sixth straight Atlantic 10 Conference championship is within Xavier’s reach, too.

Through Feb. 5, the A-10 standings were a logjam, with five teams within one-half game of first place. The Musketeers were in a four-way tie for second place with Saint Louis, Massachusetts and La Salle. Temple, which plays Xavier on Feb. 11, was in first with a 6-2 mark.

Xavier jumps back into conference play with a home game against Rhode Island on Feb. 8 and a trip to Temple on Feb. 11. Any loss from here on out could spell doom for the Musketeers’ postseason hopes.

“Any loss is heartbreaking because we’re so competitive and we want to win (every game),” freshman Dezmine Wells said following the Memphis game. “It’s a hard loss, but we’re going to bounce back from it.”

NOTES, QUOTES

Rebounding hasn’t been Xavier’s strong suit

–The Musketeers had been outrebounded in five of the past seven games through Feb. 5. The only games in which they weren’t bested on the boards were when they had a 41-37 edge at George Washington, and when they finished in a 32-32 tie at Charlotte. For the season, Xavier had a plus-2.2 average rebounding margin.

–Defense is the key. In Xavier’s first 15 wins, it held opponents to just 36.3 percent shooting, compared with 45.1 percent shooting from the field by opponents in the Musketeers’ seven losses through Feb. 5.

–Entering the Feb. 8 game against Rhode Island, Xavier was 158-21 (.883) at Cintas Center in 12 seasons, including 9-3 this year. The Musketeers had won 43 consecutive Atlantic 10 games at home prior to the Jan. 25 loss to Saint Louis.

BY THE NUMBERS: 121 — Tu Holloway’s assist total through 21 games this season. Holloway is one of eight Musketeers to have three 100-plus assist seasons in their careers.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “A loss is a loss no matter how many points you score.” — Freshman G Dez Wells, after scoring a career-high 19 points in the Feb. 4 loss at Memphis.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAMES:

–vs. Rhode Island, Feb. 8

KEY MATCHUPS: With their victory at Dayton earlier this month, the Rams have proven capable of upsetting a heavily favored team on the road, so the Musketeers must be wary. The Rams have five players who average in double figures, led by Jamal Wilson, but they give up more than 75 points per contest.

–at Temple, Feb. 11

KEY MATCHUPS: Winning in Philly has been a tough task for Xavier. The Owls were 7-1 at home through Feb. 5. Temple is led by Ramone Moore, who averages better than 18 points per game. Juan Fernandez, who shoots 41 percent from 3-point range, is a Musketeers nemesis.

FUTURES MARKET: Freshman G Dezmine Wells earned national acclaim early this season for his highlight-reel dunks, and more recently for his development as a complete player. Wells scored a career-high 19 points in the Feb. 4 loss at Memphis. He was 8-for-10 from the field with five rebounds and four assists. However, he went scoreless in the last six minutes and was unable to help rally his teammates. Wells’ energy helped spark Xavier to an 8-0 start, and the team will need the freshman to deliver more performances like the one against Memphis if the Musketeers hope to make a postseason run.

PLAYER NOTES

–Coach Chris Mack addressed the reasons why freshman Justin Martin’s playing time has been steadily reduced. “Game time isn’t the time to prove yourself and play hard,” said Mack of Martin, who did not play the past two games through Feb. 5. Martin’s practice effort has been inconsistent at best, according to Mack, who added that he was still waiting for Martin’s “light bulb to go off.”

–Junior G Mark Lyons scored nine points in the Feb. 1 win at George Washington to eclipse the 1,000-point mark for his career. With his 14 points Feb. 4, Lyons had 1,021 points, good for 49th place on the school’s all-time list.

–Senior G Tu Holloway had seven assists Feb. 4 to become just the second player in Xavier history to have 1,000 career points and 500 career assists. Jamal Walker is the other.

–Junior G Brad Redford is finding his stroke. After missing last season following knee surgery, Redford endured a 1-for-21 stretch from 3-point  range. However, he had hit at least two 3-pointers in seven of nine games through Feb. 5 and was averaging more than 14 minutes. He went 2-for-3 from 3-point range at Memphis on Feb. 4.