Xavier center Kenny Frease's listed height is 7-feet. He weighs 270 pounds. His physical presence was imposing before he acquired the shiner on his right eye, the lingering effects from the infamous right-hand blast he received from Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates in the crosstown rivals' ugly Dec. 10 brawl. With the shiner, Frease looks like a UFC heavyweight. If you gave him an earpiece and a black t-shirt, he could be the most intimidating bouncer in the greater Cincinnati area.
But Saturday night, as Frease hunched toward his news conference microphone in the Cintas Center media room, I couldn't help but think the big man looked like he needed a hug.
Frankly, he sounded like it, too.
"I guess they just wanted it more than us, " Frease said, sighing and searching for answers just minutes after his team's 72-65 loss to Gonzaga, in which the Musketeers had been pounded on the offensive glass to the tune of the Bulldogs' 38.9 percent offensive rebounding rate. "I don't know. I really don't know any other explanation. It's not like they were bigger and stronger than us. We just weren't blocking them out."
When a reporter asked the necessary follow-up -- "How could they want it more than you?" -- Frease dug even deeper.
"I really don't know," he said. "Myself included. We all made mistakes tonight. We've got to figure out whatever it was we had before all this stuff went down. Whatever we lost, we've got to figure it out. We've got to get it back."
Frease did most of the talking for himself and teammate Tu Holloway on Saturday night, who stared distantly at a flatscreen TV tuned to Washington's late-night Pac-12 matchup with Oregon. Holloway was in no mood to discuss his team's struggles. He and Frease almost looked shellshocked.
Neither had seemed to notice one rather salient fact about Xavier's loss: The Musketeers shot 3-18 from beyond the arc. Forget rebounding. Forget desire. When you shoot the ball like that, well, it's almost impossible to win. Considering Xavier never went away Saturday, and had a chance to draw close throughout the second half -- in which the Zags made big shot after big shot, many with the shot clock nearly expired -- maybe the outlook needn't be entirely negative. Maybe it was just one of those nights.
Of course, Frease didn't want to hear it.
"There's no comfort in losing," Frease said. "I don't know. There's nothing good that comes from a loss, in my opinion. We have to figure it out. We've got to be ready. We've got conference season coming up. We've got to figure it out."
Frease's analysis is the obvious, easy one. It's tempting to look at Xavier's play in the past three weeks and see the much-ballyhooed (and rightfully so) Cincinnati brawl as an invisible line of demarcation. Before the brawl, Xavier was 8-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country. Since the brawl, the Muskeeters are 1-4. It doesn't take a crack hoops analyst to examine the differences before and after Dec. 10 and concur with Frease's analysis -- to believe this Xavier team is shaken, that it is feeling some form of what David Foster Wallace once called "the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." Toughness. Resolve. Confidence. Whatever that infinite, intangible quality was, the Musketeers could be certainly be accused of having lost it.
That line of analysis is enticing in its simplicity. It's also -- at least partially -- wrong.
Indeed, Xavier has looked out of sorts since the Dec. 10 brawl, but it has had reason to. Its first four games after the brawl included a trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic, which Xavier opened against a very good mid-major team in Long Beach State. It's possible the 49ers would have won that game against a full-strength Musketeers squad, much less one without shooting guard Mark Lyons and freshman swingman Dez Wells, both of whom were still serving their post-brawl suspensions.
Why? Because the undefeated Musketeers have never been quite as good as advertised this season. The flaws have been obvious, particularly on offense. Xavier barely managed a point per possession in its 66-60 win against Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 18. It needed late comebacks and last-minute heroics from Holloway to steal an otherwise-ugly overtime win at Vanderbilt, and turn around what appeared for 30 minutes to be a blowout home loss to Purdue.
Without those 10 or 15 minutes of inspired, come-from-behind play, the Musketeers lose two early nonconference games, and the distinction between the pre- and post-brawl Musketeers squads becomes far more difficult to draw.
"Everybody that follows our program knows that we weren't perfect at 8-0," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "But we took our foot off the gas pedal on the defensive end, for whatever reason -- self-inflicted problems, whatever."
If Frease's Saturday proclamations were dire, his coach's were cool-headed and rational. To him, the difference was simple: His team hasn't played the same style of defense as in its first eight games. Why? The brawl-borne distractions and resulting suspensions certainly didn't help, of course, but the defensive downturn isn't wholly attributable to some intangible loss resulting from the overwhelmingly critical response to Xavier's crosstown fisticuffs.
"I told my guys over the time we spent in Hawaii, we lost some things defensively," Mack said. "We went from being a team that was really hard to score against to a team that didn't have it on the defensive end -- for a variety of reasons. [...] When you let habits slip, for a week or two weeks, you're trying to get things back that aren't consistently in place that need to be."
Of course, Mack is hardly thrilled with the slippage. He was also less than pleased with Xavier's offensive intelligence Saturday night, something it struggled with in Hawaii as well. Mack chided unnamed players for trying to "summer league their way" through offensive possessions, resulting in incoherent possessions and unexpected shots. He also took solace in the fact that Xavier, for all of its struggles Saturday night, had merely lost to a good, ranked Gonzaga team. Gonzaga had to make those big shots, after all.
In other words, there are shades of gray here. Has Xavier struggled after the brawl? Absolutely. Were they as good as advertised before Dec. 10? No. Many of the problems Xavier faced Saturday night, or even in those disappointing losses in the Diamond Head (most notably to a bad Hawaii team), were evident long before Gates cracked Frease in the eye, before Lyons and Holloway gave their unrepentant postgame quotes, before Holloway earned (arguably misplaced) scorn for using phrases like "gangsters," "thugs" and the t-shirt-worthy "zip 'em up."
And the season, as Mack said Saturday night, is "a lifetime." Xavier is still the clear favorite to win the Atlantic 10 this season, and as the Musketeers open league play against a conference with few obvious challengers -- Saint Louis being the most notable to date -- it's not hard to envision this team rattling off a few early wins and leaving all this nebulous "What happened to Xavier?" talk in the rearview mirror.
In fact, Xavier did as much in 2010-11, when it started the season 8-5 in nonconference with losses to Old Dominion, Miami (Ohio), Gonzaga, Florida and Cincinnati before rattling off seven straight wins en route to an A-10 title and 15-1 regular season record.
Sure, the comparative post- and pre-brawl records don't look good. But there's much more there -- early struggles in wins, suspensions and distractions, and a plain old ugly shooting night in their fourth loss in give games -- than immediately meets the eye.
"I told the kids in the locker room, the stuff that doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," Mack said. "The only people that I have to worry about my kids believing in is me and vice versa. I have a belief in every single one of my players on both ends of the floor.
"I've got a lot of faith in this program," Mack said. "I don't care who doesn't have faith in this program. I know my kids have it in the locker room, and we'll be fine. [People] were saying the same thing a year ago, if you can remember that. Because I can. I can remember that."