Xavier getting back to pre-brawl form
Duquesne coach Ron Everhart felt like he was watching months-old video as Xavier shredded his team in every imaginable way.
What's this about the Musketeers still being off their game?
''I thought they looked a whole lot like they were earlier in the year,'' Everhart said, after Xavier's 78-50 win last week.
The Musketeers (12-5, 3-1 Atlantic 10) have won three in a row heading into their game on Wednesday night against Saint Joseph's (12-6, 2-2), an indication they've finally gotten over the brawl that got unwanted national attention and changed everything.
''They feel like that microscope has been pushed aside,'' coach Chris Mack said. ''Guys are just playing.''
They're playing a lot more like they did during the first eight games, all of which they won. They had moved up to No. 8 in the national poll and played their best game of the season on Dec. 10, a 76-53 win over rival Cincinnati that became overheated.
With 9.4 seconds left, players exchanged shoves and punches. Instead of celebrating the highlight of their season, the Musketeers were on the defensive. Guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons bragged about Xavier's toughness afterward, drawing national criticism.
Eight players were suspended - four from each team. Xavier lost its top three scorers in Holloway, Lyons and Dez Wells, suspended for one, two and four games, respectively.
The chemistry and confidence left, too.
Xavier lost five of the next six games with a lineup in flux as players returned from suspensions. Reserves had to play major minutes and switch roles from game to game. Plus, the Musketeers had to be careful not to say or do anything that would invite more criticism.
A season that started with so much promise became a mess. Even when the roster was back to full strength, that chemistry was still missing.
''As a coach, you're always worried,'' Mack said. ''When we were 8-0, I was worried. I'm paranoid. That's the life of a basketball coach. But did I think we wouldn't be able to have the ability to bounce back? No, I thought we'd have the ability to bounce back. If any program or if any guys in the program have ever seen being able to survive adversity, it's us.''
Their biggest drop-off came on defense. During that 8-0 start which included victories over Georgia, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Butler and Cincinnati, the Musketeers allowed an average of only 61.1 points per game. Only one team scored more than 63 points - Vanderbilt, in Xavier's 82-70 overtime win.
During the next six games, the Musketeers were often out of place and gave up 74.1 points per game. They've gotten that part back in order, allowing only 57.7 points during the three-game winning streak. Duquesne managed only 16 points in the first half of its loss.
''Their depth is scary,'' Everhart said. ''The kids who had to fill in (during the suspensions), you can tell they've gotten a lot better. And now with the guys that haven't played during that stretch coming back into the mix ...
''You know, that's tough to do from a chemistry standpoint. Sometimes it's tougher to get a guy back in the lineup that's been out. You have to take your hat off to Chris. He's done a great job integrating the guys that were out with the guys that had been playing.''
Xavier's guard-driven offense has better balance lately, too. Holloway scored at least 21 points in five of the first 10 games. During the winning streak, he has been passing the ball more often to open teammates. Holloway has 18 assists and only 23 points in the last three games.
''I want him to be able to get in the lane and do what the game tells him,'' Mack said. ''I don't want him to settle for deep 3s, which he had a tendency to do early in the season.
''You're going to have to get in the lane. Then, good point guards separate themselves on the decisions they make, either get a good shot or pass. In the last few games, he's found guys and made great passes and shots within the context of the offense.''
There's still work left before they're all the way back. The Musketeers haven't fully recovered their instinct to put teams away, tending to ease up once the game is in hand.
''I think the Cincinnati game was a very complete game,'' forward Andre Walker said. ''That got lost in everything that happened, and nobody really remembers it. That's the one thing that stuck out to me more than the brawl, that we finished the game and played a complete game.
''We've still got a little ways to go defensively. We're getting there.''
They've come to terms with the national attention from Dec. 10.
''I feel like the microscope is going to be on us for the rest of the season, and we've just got to keep that in the back of our minds, like it's not there,'' Lyons said. ''We've got a little target on our backs right now and it's not a bad thing or a good thing. We just know that everything's going to be on us, all eyes are on us.''