By Paul Gotham
A quick glance at the Atlantic 10 standings shows the Xavier Musketeers in a virtual three-way tie with a record of four wins and zero losses. While it should come as no surprise, given recent history, that Xavier is near the top of the A-10 standings there might have been some ready to prepare an epitaph for this year’s Musketeers. A four-game slide from late December into January raised a few eyebrows especially when two of those losses came to Wofford (7-12/1-5) and Wake Forest, who was 6-5 going into that game.
Since then, Xavier has rattled off four straight with wins over Temple, George Washington at St.Bonaventure and La Salle.
Over that span, freshman Semaj Christon has averaged more than 18 points and six assists.
Possessing a deadly first step along with keen court vision and the ability to slice through and finish in traffic, Christon is proving himself not just as a top rookie but as one of the best players in the conference.
“The best thing about Semaj is he continues to get better every day because of his coach-ability, his attitude,” said Xavier head coach Chris Mack during a recent conference call. “He’s got an amazing feeling. He can get better and better, and it starts with his approach every single day in practice.”
With starting point guard Dee Davis out injured, Christon scored Xavier’s final four points and six of the last eight as the Musketeers erased a five-point deficit for a 66-64 win at St. Bonaventure. In front of a raucous crowd at Bonaventure’s Reilly Center, Christon played beyond his years. Bona’s defense had to account for the perimeter threat of Brad Redford, and the Cincinnati, Ohio native capitalized in the paint finding single coverage.
He finished in traffic off the glass to break a 64-all tie with the eventual winning bucket.
“We wanted to put him in a flat screen situation, and let him get to the rim,” Mack said after the game. “Big time play for a freshman.”
Christon scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second stanza hitting four-of-six from the floor and seven-of-nine from the free throw line. He also dished out ten assists in the game.
“He’s really good,” St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt said of Christon. “He’s the freshmen of the year.”
Christon followed that with a game-high 18 points in Xavier’s 70-63 victory over La Salle. He hit eight-of-11 from the floor and two-of-three from the free throw line while handing out five dimes.
“As many people know we pressure the ball pretty hard,” said La Salle head coach Dr. John Gianinni. “Semaj is terrific. We have never played against him. We tried to get after him, and he beat us off the dribble and made some plays.”
His efforts earned him his fourth rookie-of-the-week honor.
“He clearly has a good pull-up game, a good mid-range game,” Mack added. “He’s a better shooter than maybe he has shown. He’s explosive. He reads situations well. He has a good hesitation dribble. He has good size. He scores out in transition. There are a lot of things he brings to the table offensively. I wouldn’t call him one-dimensional in any way.”
An injury earlier this season to his shooting elbow has presented a speed bump for Christon. He developed an infection from a cut sustained during practice.
“The cut continued for the first two or three weeks after it was stitched,” Mack explained. “It really affected him being able to shoot the ball.”
Christon notched a career-high 25 points in his first true road game when Xavier topped Purdue on December first, 63-57. He added four assists, four rebounds and three steals.
Xavier has reached seven straight NCAA tournaments, and despite their recent four-game losing streak their overall record of 11-6 is just one off the pace this time the last three seasons. A year ago, extenuating circumstances led to the Muskies dropping five of six. They rebounded and advanced to their second trip to the Sweet Sixteen in three years. All five starters from that team are gone leaving many to suggest the Musketeers had entered rebuilding mode.
The Musketeers take to the road this week with games at Charlotte (3-1/15-3) and pre-season conference favorite St. Joseph’s (1-2/10-6).
“He’s extremely talented,” commented Charlotte head coach Alan Major. “Sometimes, when guys come in as freshmen, the hype and the recruiting print doesn’t match what they actually do. But he’s everything that he’s cracked up to be. We’ll have to have a great team effort to defend him. We’ll have to guard him as a team as opposed to a single guy doing it. He has a chance to be extremely special in the future.”