The Florida Gators and the Xavier Musketeers squared off in a New Year’s Eve showdown yesterday afternoon. With the day off work, a trip to Cincinnati seemed to be in order to see these two teams live. The Buckeyes already faced Florida this season, and we were given a first impression from that encounter, but the opportunity to see how the team had progressed since November 16th was intriguing. Xavier is a school not on the Buckeye schedule this season, but they have become a regular NCAA Tournament visitor, so the game promised to be an exciting contest. Also lest we forget, Thad made his bones at Xavier prior to coming to Columbus, so a visit to Cincinnati would provide a look into the atmosphere that our coach had to leave behind to join the Buckeyes.
The Musketeers play at the Cintas Center near downtown Cincinnati. The Cintas Center opened in 2000 and can seat over 10,000 people for basketball games. There really is a buzz as you enter the arena, and it quickly becomes apparent that Xavier enjoys an intense home court advantage. In fact, they entered Friday’s game on a 30-game home winning streak, second only to the Kansas Jayhawks. While there are still some silly fan giveaways during the timeouts, the “production” of the game isn’t too extensive, and overall the Cintas Center provides a great venue for a college basketball game. Most importantly, it gets extremely loud in the arena with the sound descending down on the court.
There weren’t many surprises from Florida in the game, with the possible exception of Alex Tyus coming in with a shaved head rather than his signature dreadlocks. When Ohio State played Florida earlier in the year, the play of Vernon Macklin seemed to stand out along with the outside shooting of Kenny Boynton, who ended up leading Florida with 21 points. Against Xavier, the Florida bigs, especially Tyus, got the Gators started early, but passed the baton to explosive point guard Erving Walker for the second half en route to a 71-67 road victory. Walker finished with 18 points, which included 3-6 shooting from beyond the arc – one of those three’s coming from way beyond the arc – and 9-11 free throw shooting that sealed the deal down the stretch.
Walker is startlingly fast end-to-end, and it’s a credit to the Ohio State defense that he did not hurt us the same way that he stuck daggers into Xavier throughout the second half. Upon this second viewing of Florida, it’s clear that they have some good pieces. Both Walker and Boynton can shoot the lights out if given space, Macklin is a bruiser down low while Tyus is an athletic F/C with a good shooting touch, and Chandler Parsons provides all-around play, as evidenced by his game-leading 7 assists and 11 rebounds from the small forward position against Xavier. However, the Gators still strike me as a team without an identity, and it’s probably because no player on the floor for them stands out in a leadership role.
Walker directs traffic from the point position, but he doesn’t set the tone for the team consistently, and this contributed to the Musketeers’ ability to stay close in this game. Numerous Florida errors in the middle of the first half and toward the end of the second half kept Xavier within striking distance. In fact, Florida had double the amount of turnovers as the Musketeers (16 compared to 8), which is usually a recipe for defeat. If Florida is to improve over the season and lay claim to one of the top 20 spots in the country, they will need to play more as a cohesive unit and less as individuals. They have the talent and the tools, but the pieces need to be brought together.
As for Xavier, the analysis is fairly straightforward. Senior shooting guard Tu (pronounced like Two) Holloway is a major scoring threat, and Florida really didn’t have a good answer for him. Time and time again Holloway drove to the hoop for acrobatic layups and floating bank shots, resulting in his game-leading 26 points on 9-18 shooting. Especially at the end of the game, Holloway repeatedly split the Florida defenders to get to the hoop, and he’s the type of player who always seems to get the right angle off the glass to get the shot to drop. He is truly a fun player to watch.
Unfortunately for Xavier, Holloway is all they’ve got. The strategy is this: Give the ball to Tu, set a pick, let him split the defenders with his dynamite crossover, and then try to defend on the other end. Forward Jamel McLean is a high-flyer, but he’s not an offensive threat. Backup big man Kenny Frease is a workhorse in the post, and he’s got a nice shooting touch (he contributed 16 points against the Gators), but he’s certainly not going to take over a game. Forward Dante Jackson is a good athlete, and he didn’t hesitate to jack up some three-balls (he went 3-9 on his attempts), but he’s undisciplined and plays on adrenaline rather than in tune with the game over the entire 40 minutes. Frankly, Xavier trying to run an offense is a train wreck, and they went on a lengthy drought in the second half without a single field goal.
Xavier may work their way into the tournament again this year, although it will be a challenge for them to gain the automatic bid given Temple’s strong play this year in the A-10. The Musketeers have suffered from injuries to key players, thus limiting their options for running set plays and opening up the court for different looks. Despite the offensive woes, Xavier is good at getting out in transition for quick scores, and their press at the end of the game wreaked havoc with Florida for a few minutes. With the play of Holloway, Xavier could win a fair number of conference games this year, but they won’t go far if they run into a defensive-minded team that can control tempo.