No one knows the double-edged sword of self-confidence better than J.P. Macura, who plays his best when he isn’t flying under the radar.
His white shooting sleeves he wears on both arms are bold, like his playing style that sways between ambitious and reckless. When he mocked Wisconsin’s fans with a “gator chomp” after beating the Badgers in November, he was criticized nationally. Of course, he finished the game with 20 points, leading Xavier in scoring.
After his conflict throughout the Crosstown Shootout with Cincinnati, Mick Cronin said Macura needed to change his demeanor. “If he were playing for me,” Cronin said after the game, “he wouldn’t play.”
But instead of taking Cronin’s advice and taming his on-court persona, Macura is doing more of the same.
As Macura battled with Marquette guard Andrew Rowsey to open conference play– and as Rowsey’s teammates knocked around the Xavier guard– Macura saw the target on his back. Right before halftime against Marquette, he collided with a defender during a last-second fastbreak layup attempt, he punched the stanchion and stared down both the referee and the player who might have fouled him.
And Macura was knocked to the ground in the middle of the second half, drawing a technical foul in a physical matchup.
But Macura hasn’t been an outlier in the Xavier locker room. A team takes on the identity of its leaders, and the Musketeers are playing the best basketball they have in Macura and Trevon Bluiett’s tenure. His teammates have taken on Macura’s persona.
When Kerem Kanter drained a three-point shot to tie the game in the last minute against Eastern Tennessee State– his first clutch basket as a Musketeer– he kept his outstretched hand “in the cookie jar,” relishing in his perfect release.
After Macura forced a turnover in the closing seconds at Northern Iowa, freshman Naji Marshall got the ball, finished an emphatic dunk and put his finger to his mouth to shush the opposing crowd.
And Bluiett has a new celebration after he hits a dagger three: he sprints down the court and points his three point goggles at the floor. And he isn’t backing down in his postgame interviews, either.
“It means a lot especially because the last time we came here they absolutely kicked our tails,” Bluiett said after beating Marquette. “This game meant everything to us.”
Xavier might have as many good players as at any time in history, in addition to more versatile scorers and multi-positional defenders. The Musketeers’ changing zones still confuse their opponents, and we might be looking at Chris Mack’s most talented team at Xavier.
And this group of players has a fierceness that Mack’s teams have lacked in the past. It’s one of the fastest starting teams in the country, earning double-digit leads against Baylor, Cincinnati and Colorado in the opening minutes and putting those games away early. Their comeback victory against ETSU and overall performance in a hostile Marquette atmosphere indicate a fire that didn’t exist when Arizona State beat Xavier in November.
After Mick Cronin’s criticism of Macura, Mack called the senior a warrior. If the Bearcats face Xavier again in the NCAA Tournament, Macura won’t be the only warrior on the other side. He’ll just be the only guy wearing two shooting clean, white shooting sleeves.