It was the kind of game Xavier didn’t always win last season.
Tuesday night’s 63-58 overtime decision over Missouri was the type of game that often didn’t go the Musketeers’ way in 2018-19. With first-year coach Travis Steele learning about his players and vice versa, Xavier had trouble finishing off tight games against decent teams most of last season.
In winning eight of their last 11 games, the Musketeers finally learned how to close the deal. They beat NCAA or NIT teams in every victory, including a 12-point thumping of Big East champion Villanova. And they have carried that momentum into a new season, along with a No. 21 ranking in this week’s Associated Press poll.
Xavier will try for a 4-0 start at Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Friday when it welcomes Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorite Missouri State to town.
The Musketeers are winning because they are playing tough defense. Opponents are averaging just 59.3 ppg so far and converting only 37.2 percent of their field goals. Xavier also finishes most of its defensive trips with a rebound, grabbing nearly five more caroms than its opponents.
“I was really proud of our guys for handling the adversity we went through in that game,” Steele said of the win over Missouri. “I wanted to see how we would handle it, because we hadn’t seen it yet. Obviously, we’d like to make more shots, but I liked the way we executed to force overtime.”
Junior forward Naji Marshall is averaging 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game for the Musketeers. He notched 17 points and eight boards against Missouri despite making only 5 of 16 field goal tries.
Xavier is also getting 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds out of 6-9 forward Tyrique Jones, who was held to six points on 2 of 10 shooting Tuesday night. Guard Paul Scruggs is chipping in 12.0 ppg. The Musketeers haven’t clicked yet on offense, making just over 41 percent from the field and hitting an embarrassing 13 of 63 from the 3-point line.
Missouri State is coming off a 73-53 drilling of Cleveland State Tuesday night at home, getting 19 points from Keandre Cook. The Bears got off to a fast start, establishing a 30-12 lead with five minutes left in the first half and pushing the margin up to 24 points in the second half.
“It was good to get a win and we just have to try to get better,” said Missouri State coach Dana Ford. “I thought Keandre found a little bit of a groove offensively, and we are finding things we can build off.”
Cook has starred offensively for the Bears, tallying 19.3 ppg and hitting 56.3 percent from the field. But their only other double-figure scorer so far is forward Lamont West, a West Virginia transfer who’s scoring 10.0 ppg.
This will be the teams’ first meeting.
–Field Level Media