|On Saturday Holloway scored zero points. That hadn't happened since he was a freshman. (Getty Images)|
By Matt Norlander
BRONX, N.Y. — Player with All-American talent comes home, has a game in front of 70 friends and family, and takes only three shots, scoring zero points.
How do you interpret that? Bravo to said player for not trying to force the issue and make the game about him? Or is there something wrong if a guy who’s his team’s best scorer simply opts out of aggressiveness and turns his game into a one-mode mission: distribute the ball at all costs. For the first time since he was a freshman, Tu Holloway failed to score a point.
Holloway says he’s OK. Says he and Xavier got that much-needed morale boost of a win by defeating Fordham on the road 67-59 Saturday afternoon. Holloway, who grew up in Hempstead, N.Y., also had five assists and two turnovers. He looked as much the part of a natural point guard as I’ve seen him. And it looked odd.
“We didn’t want to get any technical fouls [in the last few games],” Holloway said. “Today, we had to get back to being us.”
Then, he went existential. Say what you will about Tu Holloway, at least he’s got a sense of the ethos.
“In your mind, you are who you are for so long, but you don’t realize you change sometimes,” he said.
Holloway’s definitely changed to a degree since You Know What. He said he’s back (I don’t think he’s all the way there; when we see it we’ll know it), but admitted the team was mentally rattled for the past month. That disconnect started with him and fellow guard Mark Lyons not taking control of the team.
There’s no way Xavier’s OK and all the way back if these kinds of games from Holloway become habit — not to suggest they will, either, but today’s performance was tangibly consistent with his inhibitions for the past month. Know this: The two big games Holloway was held to single digits last season, Xavier lost (to Cincy in the regular season and to Marquette in the NCAA tournament). Fortunately, Fordham, one of the younger teams in the country, is still not that strong and X could get itself right by mixing it up and trying to win in other ways. Any way to get that W was what Xavier (10-5) needed, and it got it.
“I think today was an anomaly,” Musketeers coach Chris Mack said. “But, yeah, we need him to score. There’s no question about it. He probably went overboard the other way, but for this game, where our team is at, the only stat that mattered was the win.”
Holloway was averaging four turnovers per game the previous five games, fouling with more frequency . His scoring hadn’t dipped too much, but his on-court demeanor — and the rest of the team’s, too — altered. On Saturday Holloway wasn’t brash on the floor. His chest didn’t puff like Lyons’. Normally, the two go hand in hand in how they play, fraternal twins who dictate Xavier’s personality and mood swings. Lyons was the reason Xavier avoided a loss — and subsequently didn’t turn this post into an obituary. Lyons remained aggressive, wanted the ball, said this was the game where he got back to not worrying about how refs would view the team and make calls. He baited Lamount Samuell into a technical after taking the ball from Samuell in a dead-ball situation and saying, “Gimme that.” It’s how Lyons plays. It’s pesky, and it showed he wasn’t afraid to be himself on the floor anymore.
It was Lyons, not Holloway, who had the ball and hit two free throws to put the game decisively out of reach, at 66-59, with 30 seconds to go after Fordham made a late-game push. Holloway’s an 83 percent free-throw shooter; Lyons 73. Yet he made sure he got those free throws.
“We’ve been worried about the media and stuff,” Lyons said. “And nowadays we’re getting back to our old ways, and we’re going to compete and be the tough and nasty team that our program is known for.”
Lyons only speaks in terms of defensive toughness. I found it refreshing that Xavier’s coaching staff and players weren’t afraid to keeping using the words “tough” and “nasty” following the win. The fight was awful PR, but it’s not going to change how the team plays. At least not anymore.
“I think a lot of people want to label our kids at times as dumb, but he’s (Holloway) a great kid,” Mack said. “He hasn’t played great at times, but I wouldn’t take any other point guard in the country.”
Here’s what’s interesting to me. Xavier was 9-5 coming into this game, and it’s Mack’s third season as coach. You know what the Muskies were last year after 14 games? 9-5. They finished the regular season 24-6. In 2009-10? Again: 9-5. They finished 23-7. It’s what leads up to and surrounds that record that dictates how we view it, of course. Xavier could win up in the tournament and getting a 5 seed. There’s a lot left to accomplish, I just think Holloway’s got to mentally lock in and play unafraid for it to happen. Again, we’re waiting to see it come back.
“We’re gonna be fine,” Mack said as he crutched his way out of Rose Hill Gymnasium and headed to the airport; he tore his patella tendon Friday night while practicing with the team. “It’s on us to make sure the team that I see every day in practice shows up in games, and for whatever reason that hasn’t been the case.”
Out of everyone involved with the program, Mack seems the most confident and least stressed about his team’s reputation and performance and Holloway. Which is how it should be.
“If it weren’t for the fight at Cincinnati, I don’t know what our record would be, but I’m not going to apologize for it,” he said. Xavier’s done apologizing in general. Once Holloway stops feeling restricted and regains his confidence, we’ll know for sure if this team’s completely moved on.