By Andy Mac Williams, 1/29/2018

I'm back in Cincy after enjoying my own bye week visiting family in Seattle and Whistler, BC, Canada. My son Bryan and I watched the platinum level road win at Seton Hall (73-64) and the dominating Cintas victory over Marquette (89-70). Bryan came up large figuring out how to stream XU-MU from his laptop computer to a smart TV. X finds itself in a strong spot heading into February and the second half of the round robin 18 game BIG EAST schedule at 19-3 overall-7-2 in the BE(a half game back of 7-1 Villanova) with an active 4 game winning streak. The NCAA RPI sits at a rarefied #3 behind only Virginia and Villanova and ahead of Duke. The internal RPI metrics are encouraging re NCAA seeding(Selection Sunday less than 6 weeks away) with a #15 Strength of Schedule-6-3 record vs RPI Top 50-11-3 vs Top 100-4-2 Road Record and no bad losses so far. Xavier has climbed to #6 in the AP Top 25.


BIG EAST statistics are about all I look at this deep into the schedule. Offensively, Xavier can score with anybody in the conference(81.4PPG). Defensively, things have improved considerably. The Muskies gave up 81.8PPG through the first five BE tilts(3-2 record).Not good!! Since then, X has allowed 71.5PPG in posting 4 wins. Major improvement!! Packline defense has been the staple. Naji Marshall has become a defensive stopper against prime scorers like Marcus Foster(Creighton), Desi Rodriquez(Seton Hall), Shamorie Ponds(St Johns) and Rowsey and Howard(Marquette).

Communication is better. Steals and turnovers forced are increasing. Stops and kills(three stops in a row) are proliferating. This veteran Muskie team can ratchet up the defense at critical points now(the last 4 minute war at Seton Hall-a 13-5 XU run securing a watershed 73-64 road win and the 15-0 run against St Johns at Cintas wiping out a 3 point Johnnies' second half lead).


Xavier shares the ball on offense(#10 NCAA in total assists) and they take care of the ball(#19 NCAA in assist to turnover ratio at 1.41). X cashes in at the foul line(#6 NCAA in total made FTs). They rebound well (#12 NCAA in rebound margin at plus 7.6/game). Muskie depth quality is improving. PG Paul Scruggs is becoming a strong asset. Over the 4 game win streak Scruggs is playing 18 minutes/game-averaging 7.75 PPG-with 11 assists to just 3 turnovers plus 4 steals. They leave him open outside the arc. Scruggs has made them pay(4-9 from three) and he delivers physical sticky man defense also. Kaiser Gates now comes off the bench productively(10.5 PPG-4 Rebounds) and BIG Sean O'Mara is playing efficiently (14 min/game-5.25PPG-4 Rebounds-2 assists). The trajectory for TEAM 96 looks positive to me.


Naji Marshall is the BIG EAST Freshman of the Week for the second time in January after posting 10 points-3 rebounds and 4 assists in the win over Marquette. His defense against Rowsey and Howard was pivotal in the 89-70 Muskie win. Trevon Bluiett made the BIG EAST Honor Roll for the 6th time this season after reaching the 2,000 career point mark with 13 against MU(and 10 rebounds). Trevon should move into third place on the all time Xavier Scoring List Tuesday at St Johns(8:30 PM-EST-CBSSN). Tyrone Hill is at 2003. Romain Sato is at 2005.


The Johnnies are a BIG EAST enigma at 0-10 in the conference. Xavier had to play well to beat SJU 88-82 at Cintas on January 17th. St Johns actually led 67-64 midway through the second half before the Muskies throttled them. Justin Simon the rangy Arizona transfer PG killed XU(28 points-9 rebounds-5 assists-3 steals). He attacked the rim relentlessly. Xavier did a strong job against Shamorie Ponds(third leading BE scorer-19PPG). He shot just 6 for 20 with Naji Marshall draped all over him. X had trouble scoring inside consistently against the Red Storm shot blockers(Tariq Owens and Marvin Clark). Luckily, the three pointers were going down(XU 14 for 26).

Xavier destroyed SJU on the glass(39-21). Bluiett scored 23. Kerem Kanter had 22 with 13 rebounds. St Johns plays gambling defense well (among the NCAA's Top 25 in steals-blocked shots and turnovers created). They have struggled preventing enemy three pointers and making their own long shots especially in BIG EAST games after a strong non-conference 10-2 record against a decent schedule.

Their NCAA RPI is still respectable(102) despite the 10 game losing streak. Sniper guard Marcus Lovett(15PPG) went down in Game #6 with a knee injury. Lack of depth and size has been a constant negative. SJU plays Xavier Tuesday on campus in Queens at cozy (5,600) Carnesseca Arena not Madison Square Garden. St Johns beat Nebraska there in the Gavitt Games. They are 0-3 in Queens against BE opponents with losses to Providence, DePaul and Creighton(last Tuesday 68-63 CU-Blue Jays played without injured BIG Martin Krampelj for the first time). Saturday St Johns hit the wall-losing badly 70-45 at Butler. Most nights

Chris Mullen's Johnnies have been hard to play. Ponds their top scorer is in a two game slump(9 points total-few FTs-3 for 23 shooting). Is he hurting(knee??) or is he fatigued? Ponds dropped 37 on Villanova and 33 on Georgetown recently. Which Ponds will show up against Xavier??

St Johns plays Duke at sold-out MSG this Saturday on CBS. Will they be looking ahead?? Xavier needs to keep it simple-attack inside-share the ball-hound Ponds and do a better job of controlling Justin Simon off the dribble. The game obviously is very winnable for the Muskies, but St Johns can be stubborn. Their fight might return playing in front of 5,600 at Carnesseca.

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