Russell: Xavier's proved its mettle, but bigger challenges lie ahead

CINCINNATI -- Bring on the Baylor Bears.

That’s what lies ahead for No. 7 Xavier -- a Top 10 match-up against No. 9 Baylor in Texas -- after Tuesday’s 85-55 pounding of North Dakota State before a sellout crowd of 10,250 at Cintas Center.

The Bison (5-3) didn’t put up much of a fight against a Musketeers team (7-0) with more speed, length, athleticism and talent. Xavier led by as many as 36 points, held its opponent to 13.3 percent perimeter shooting and controlled the glass by a 43-27 margin.

With sophomore forward Kaiser Gates back in the mix for a second game, Xavier developed more chemistry and cohesiveness, and that spelled big trouble for another opponent. Counting the previous win over Northern Iowa, the Musketeers have outscored their last two foes by a combined 78-34 in first halves.

"I thought it was good focus by our guys to come out and be ready to defend," coach Chris Mack said. "I thought we carried over what we were pretty good at Saturday (against Northern Iowa) to tonight."

Trevon Bluiett scored 23 points, Sean O’Mara chipped in 12 points, J.P. Macura contributed 11 points and Malcolm Bernard had 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.

Now, as Xavier’s schedule becomes tougher, the team must translate its success to a higher level. Baylor (6-0) will be a huge litmus test, making Saturday’s 3:30 p.m., ESPN2-televised contest one of the best gauges of where the team stands.

Here’s a look at what facilitated Xavier’s 27th straight non-conference home victory.

Defense, defense, defense

Nearly every door North Dakota State planned to open was shuttered by Xavier’s pack line defense.

Season scoring leader Paul Miller was held scoreless for the first half and finished with just four points, well below his 14.4 average. A.J. Jacobson was denied a 3-pointer after starting the season 14-for-18 from the perimeter. And season rebounding leader Dexter Werner, who played just eight first-half minutes due to two fouls, had just four boards.

Bluiett played a great deal of defense on Jacobson and said the Musketeers "wanted to make him put (the ball) on the floor a little bit and see what he could do."

Jacobson attempted only two shots throughout and didn’t score at all, leaving the Bison without his 10.8-point average.

"We just wanted to make sure that anytime he was involved in a ball-screen or a hand-off, there were zero communication errors," Mack said. "There weren’t two guys on the ball while Jacobson floated open. And I thought we did that."

Xavier scored 22 points off turnovers and kept North Dakota State from establishing an offensive rhythm for most of the game. The bright spot for the Bison was Deng Geu, a red-shirt freshman who erupted for a career-high 18 points.

Playing with a lead

About the only knock in Xavier's outing was its inability to keep its foot on the gas when playing with a sizeable lead.

Xavier’s 36-point advantage was trimmed to 26 points with seven minutes to play after the Bison reeled off eight straight points. A Bluiett turnover paved the way for a Tyson Ward lay-up, and then Khy Kabellis and Spencer Eliason scored.

Then, after a 30-second Xavier timeout, Miller hit a jumper that made it 71-45.

"I would say when we get up big, we tend to relax a little bit. So that’s something that we’ve got to work on," said Bluiett, who ended XU’s 5:09 field goal drought with consecutive 3-pointers.

There may not be another non-conference game on Xavier’s schedule as lopsided as this, so losing a slight edge in a rout is perhaps a minor quibble. The things the Musketeers did well overshadowed the lapse, from taking away North Dakota State’s dribble-drive to protecting the ball on offense and creating quality shots.

He’s back, take two

Gates played 14 minutes in his second game back following an October scope on his left knee. He played 11 minutes the game before, against Northern Iowa, and was scoreless in that outing.

This time Gates buried two 3-pointers and grabbed three rebounds.

Mack, asked if he had a minute count in mind for the 6-foot-8 player during his progression back into the rotation, said he was more interested in putting Gates on the floor and seeing "how he does."

"His wind is probably the thing that’s going to keep him back from playing more minutes right now. It’s not necessarily his knee. Or it could be mental errors, it could be he forgets plays, whatever the case is. He’s done a great job with that," Mack said.

"We just felt like he’s building towards being a full-time contributor. He took a big step tonight and a lot better step than he did against Northern Iowa, and I think that’s going to be the case as we move forward."

Gates' ability to stretch defenses is evident in his perimeter skills, and that remains a unique attribute for a player his size. It also makes Xavier’s frontcourt more difficult to defend.

All-around player

If there’s one thing that Bluiett learned by dipping his toes in NBA waters during the offseason, it’s that versatility becomes him. The 6-6 junior did much more than score 23 points against the Bison; he also had seven assists and five rebounds and was 4-for-4 from the free-throw line.

Bluiett said his offseason 15-pound weight loss has facilitated his movement and allowed him to be a better player.

While he’s a harsh self-critic of his efficiency (he said increasing his reps could change his shooting percentages), Bluiett admitted he’s playing the kind of game he aspired to after receiving feedback from pro scouts.

"I want to be the all-around player. Just doing anything they need me to do in any aspect of the game," Bluiett said.

Engineering the offense

Edmond Sumner didn’t take a first-half shot, and he only finished with 5 points -- his lowest total in any game this season -- but Mack thought he ran Xavier’s offense with great maturity.

Mack said he doesn't worry about Sumner scoring. He's more concerned with the point guard being an extension of the coaching staff, running the offense, generating easy looks for his teammates and defending at a high level.

“He’s going to have games where he may get 15, 18 (points) because they completely disrespect him as a guy that can get to the rim. He played a great floor game as far as I’ve concerned,” Mack said.

Xavier piled on 85 points, its second-highest total this season, on a night Sumner attempted just four field goals. His seven assists, two steals and a block were just as crucial to propelling a free-flowing offense that gave other players opportunities to score.

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