- Heather Dinich, College Football Reporter
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- George Washington coach Karl Hobbs was slightly smothering in his flattery of Xavier after his team's 74-66 loss to the Musketeers on Saturday night, going so far as to compare Sean Miller's program to No. 4 UCLA.
Even Miller wasn't buying it.
"Karl's a nice guy; he's always been very kind to us," Miller said. "I'm not going to fall for the UCLA."
Neither will anybody else who pays any attention to college basketball.
I don't think we've started this conference season playing our best, but I do think we took a big step forward tonight in our effort and the way we won.
-- Xavier coach Sean Miller
Despite its win, Xavier (15-4 overall, 3-1 Atlantic 10) didn't exactly look like a top-20 team, let alone one in the top five.
Needing a convincing win after losing to Temple on the road -- a loss that snapped an impressive six-game winning streak -- Xavier came into GW's gym and let the Colonials make it a one-point game with 1 minute, 20 seconds left to play. George Washington -- a team with losses to UMBC, Fordham and Binghamton (yes, these are basketball teams, not short-season A-ball clubs) -- gave Xavier fits.
Expect more of that.
There are still questions that need to be answered -- mainly about consistency -- because Xavier isn't going to be able to rely on its November and December wins after floundering in Philadelphia on Jan. 16 in a 78-59 loss to Temple.
In the past week, Xavier hasn't looked like the same team that knocked off No. 8 Indiana way back around Thanksgiving, but Miller remained confident the true identity of the Musketeers -- a team led by a senior backcourt that has been in the NCAA Tournament and a squad that has six players scoring in double digits and preaches team defense -- is good enough to separate itself eventually.
"It's that balance on offense and the team defense that's going to give us a chance to be good," Miller said. "We have to make sure those are in place. I think the other thing that's proven out is when they're not in place, we're like a lot of teams. We're no better than anybody."
Xavier was only eight points better than George Washington, a team that dropped to 5-8 overall and 1-2 in the A-10.
Asked Saturday whether he thought his team played like the No. 20 team in the country, senior point guard Drew Lavender said, "I think we played good enough to win. The rankings, we let everybody else talk about the rankings."
Xavier had earned its spot with wins against then-No. 8 Indiana, Cincinnati, Kansas State, Virginia and Auburn. Despite that huge start to the season, Xavier seems to have taken a step back in conference play -- which promises to get only tougher.
The A-10 is a legitimately strong conference this season -- with Dayton and Charlotte leading the way. And on Thursday, Xavier will host conference rival Dayton -- a program roughly 40 minutes from the Musketeers' Cincinnati campus. That game will be followed by a road trip to Massachusetts on Sunday and a trip to Saint Louis on Feb. 7.
Given how competitive the league is going to be, there's little margin for error, as evidenced this past weekend.
"It's our last go-around," senior Stanley Burrell said. "We want to have a special season. The other guys, they have another crack at this if it doesn't go good this year. We don't. I think we all did a good job setting the tone, not necessarily with scoring points or making the right pass just being leaders, being vocal, letting guys know this is really, really important.
"If we buckle up and play good defense, we can win these games," he said. "We've got to be ourselves, though. We weren't ourselves at Temple."
This weekend was the perfect opportunity for an overpowering performance that proved Xavier's exceptional start to the season was its true colors and that it was the loss to Temple that was the fluke. Instead, the Musketeers celebrated their narrow win over a mediocre GW team as if it were an upset, and they conceded the loss to Temple was revealing.
"You can't say it's a fluke; we got what we deserved," forward C.J. Anderson said. "We didn't play hard, and they beat us. When you don't play hard, that's what happens."
It almost happened again Saturday night.
"I don't think we've started this conference season playing our best," Miller said, "but I do think we took a big step forward tonight in our effort and the way we won."
With 17 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 25 years and the veteran leadership on the roster, Xavier is obviously capable of more. The defending A-10 champs were picked to win the league again. First, the Musketeers have to get through the next two weeks.
"We're never going to be perfect," senior Josh Duncan said. "We always have to continue to work on our system and just sticking with what we do. There will never be a point where we'll be like, 'We can let up.' We just have to keep working hard every single day and improving every way we can."
The rest of the conference is going to force Xavier to play better than it did this weekend.
"So far, it's been up and down," Lavender said. "We've had our good times and our bad times, but I think every team in the country has that. If you're not undefeated you're going to have good times and bad times. I think we're doing OK right now. We could still play a lot better. Next coming up is Dayton at home, so we'll see how good we are playing against them."
So will everyone else.
Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Xavier got off to a hot start and a top-20 ranking this season. But the Musketeers are learning that life in the Atlantic 10 is not so easy, writes Heather Dinich.