CINCINNATI -- Rick Majerus didn’t make much out of his team’s 73-68 win over Xavier, passing if off as nothing more than a good night in a very long season.
The truth is, the Billikens’ win is nothing less than the latest tectonic shift in an Atlantic 10 that is undergoing serious seismic shakes.
In the A-10, there were always a few guarantees: Fran Dunphy’s mustache, Xavier winning at home and X marking the spot at the top of the conference.
The first disappeared in October, the result of a lost bet between the Temple coach and Dionte Christmas.
Saint Louis erased the second on Wednesday night, ending Xavier’s six-year home win streak against Atlantic 10 opponents, a run that extended across 43 games.
Could the third be far away?
That’s the question that most everyone is asking these days in one way or another: what’s wrong with Xavier? Can the Musketeers, a team that has won or shared five consecutive league titles, regroup?
The answer is once again TBD, now that a team that looked like it had righted itself just a week ago has lost back-to-back games.
Asked if he knew what was ailing his team, Tu Holloway shook his head.
“Not really,’’ he said. “I really can’t say. We’re all looking for answers.’’
So is Chris Mack.
The coach looks like he’s trying to plug 57 holes in the dam, fixing one only to find another one blow open.
He benched starters Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons to start the game. Mack thought his team lacked toughness in a loss at rival Dayton on Saturday and so decided instead to reward players who ‘go at it’ in practice.
It worked to a point. The Musketeers didn’t get outmuscled against the Billinkens. In fact they showed some serious resolve, clawing back into a game they looked completely out of for 20 minutes.
Only problem, with the toughness riddle solved, Mack was handed a new one: an inattention to detail, evidenced by 17 turnovers.
“We have to become a better basketball team,’’ Mack said. “No one is going to feel sorry for us. Just the opposite. There’s not going to be a lot of nice things said about us and that’s OK, as long as we stay together and we are.’’
The catch is, it’s not as easy to fix an ailing team in the A-10 as it used to be. The middle and the bottom are gaining ground this season and a five-minute brain cramp against anyone can easily turn into a loss.
Certainly, at least part of what was ailing Xavier on this night was Saint Louis. Since Majerus was hired five years ago, folks have been waiting for the Billikens to make some noise. Last season looked like the arrival date, but the year spiraled out of control under the weight of off-court suspensions.
Now it looks like Saint Louis is arriving, just a little later than expected. Theirs has not been a smooth ride. The Billikens jumped out to a hot nonconference start, beating Washington, Villanova and Oklahoma, but have struggled since the A-10 season started. Saint Louis exchanged losses and wins in the first four games.
Now on a three-game ride, the Billikens stand tied atop the murky conference standings with Dayton, UMass, LaSalle and St. Bonaventure (whoever had those teams on the leader board for late January ought to head to Vegas immediately).
This is your typical Majerus team, about as much fun to play against as a double root canal. Saint Louis does not make mistakes, plays incredibly hard defense and can beat you in all sorts of ways thanks to a wily coach who has an answer for every riddle.
Against Xavier, the Billikens started out by winning behind the arc, sinking 7 of 14 3-pointers in the first half to roll to a 41-29 lead. When Xavier adjusted, as Majerus knew it would, they pounded the ball inside to Brian Conklin. After X tied the game at 50, Conklin either scored or was fouled on five of Saint Louis’ next seven possessions.
“He’s pretty good in the low post,’’ Majerus said. “He’s been playing better and he’s a confident scorer. We had been shooting the three-ball early but when they took that away, we were able to spread them out and went to Conklin.’’
Conklin delivered to the tune of 19 points, enough to help the Billikens’ hold off a late push by the Musketeers and end a run of dominance that Majerus said he didn’t know about but his players surely did.
“It’s just a jumping board for us,’’ Conklin said. “It feels great. That 43-game streak, with me being a senior, my last year, we’ve been so close so many years and not been able to get it done, so to come in here and hit free throws, it’s great. We’re first in the conference right now. It’s ours to win or ours to lose. We definitely want it to be ours to win.’’
It certainly could be the case.
Disorder is the new order of the day in the Atlantic 10.
Down is up, X is down and Fran Dunphy is clean shaven.