Russell: Xavier routs Providence in Big East opener

CINCINNATI -- If there's one thing that bothered Trevon Bluiett about No. 17 Xavier's 82-56 romp over Providence in Wednesday's Big East opener at Cintas Center, it's that he finished one rebound shy of a double-double.

Bluiett, the Musketeers' scoring leader, scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

"It bugs me so much right now. I'll have nightmares about it too. I didn't realize I left one on the board until I sat down and RaShid (Gaston) asked me, "Did you get your 10th board?" Bluiett said. "That's tough. It's going to haunt me for a couple days."

It was a minor quibble on a night Xavier logged its most lopsided victory over a Big East opponent since joining the conference in 2013.

The Musketeers (11-2, 1-0 Big East) dismantled Ed Cooley's Friars (10-4, 0-1) on the glass and in the paint before a standing room only crowd of 10,246. Xavier's most complete game of the season featured 60.4 percent shooting, a lead that ballooned to 30 points, and a steady focus from start to finish.

"I don't think Providence played their best. I really don't. But I thought our guys, we've had the tendency ... of taking (our) foot off the gas pedal and it's been frustrating at times. And we certainly haven't arrived," Xavier coach Chris Mack said.

"But I thought tonight for maybe one of the very first times when I talked about that in one of the huddles, I thought there was difference in the way our team played on the defensive end (and) kept sharing the ball on the offensive end. And we didn't just sort of end the game."

Rocking and rolling

Xavier devoted time in practice this week to working the ball around, finding the best shot and playing deep into the shot clock. All those attributes were apparent against the Friars, as the Musketeers showcased their chemistry with unselfish play on offense.

Case in point: With 9:28 left in the first half, Bluiett swiped the ball from Maliek White and found J.P. Macura on the run.

"J.P. could have finished that," Bluiett said.

He didn't. He threw up an alley-oop to Malcolm Bernard, who laid down a dunk for the 20-7 lead. Cooley called a timeout and Xavier players mobbed each other in celebration.

That kind of synergy has been present the last two games in particular. XU had 20 assists on 28 field goals against Eastern Washington and 22 assists on 32 field goals against the Friars.

Ball distribution against Providence allowed Xavier to notch four double-figure scorers for the fourth straight game. In addition to Bluiett's 22 points, Edmond Sumner scored 13 points, Gaston added 12 and Macura chipped in 11.

That bodes well for Xavier. The last time the team lost -- at Colorado -- there was an imbalance in scoring from post to perimeter and Bluiett was forced to carry the load with 27 points. The more the team spreads its offensive wealth, the harder it will be to defeat.

"I thought our second-half ball movement was even better than the first," Mack said. "We've got to be that way."

Picking apart Providence

It's a whole new world for the Friars just one season after having NBA draftees Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil on the roster. Cooley said it's the first time Providence doesn't have "a couple of focal points that have been through some wars," as in veteran players to lead it through tough spots.

Cooley hopes Rodney Bullock, Jalen Lindsey and Kyron Cartwright emerge as those type of stalwarts. Against Xavier, Bullock went 1-for-11 for a season-low two points and Cartwright only took five shots in 30 minutes, and that was only one part of the team's downfall.

"Where do you start? I guess you start at the top and you start with myself. I've got to do a better job getting my team (ready)," Cooley said.

"I don't know what happened to our sense of urgency. I don't think we've played well the past two games. And I thought Xavier, particularly in the second half, played really well. They played with a purpose, a sense of urgency, and I just didn't think our kids did that."

Xavier forward Kaiser Gates and Bluiett combined to take Bullock out of his comfort zone. Cooley said the junior forward also missed shots he normally makes, which is why he finished well below his team-leading average of 19.4 points.

The tone of the outing was set by Xavier's defense, which held Providence to just 38.8 percent shooting while forcing 12 turnovers. The Friars slogged through an early 1-for-12 stretch with three turnovers as the Musketeers mounted a 16-2 run, and the game was never in question thereafter.

What's next?

The Musketeers play their first conference road game at Georgetown at 11 a.m. Saturday. It's been a rough start for the Hoyas, which lost at Marquette (76-66) Wednesday, shortly after Xavier wrapped up its victory over the Friars.

Rodney Pryor, a 6-foot-5 grad transfer, led Georgetown with 23 points. It wasn’t enough against a Golden Eagles team that raced to an 11-0 start and never allowed the Hoyas to claim the lead.

For Xavier, the recipe for success lies in the template they etched against Providence: Playing selflessly, defending cohesively and converting stops to points. As well as the defense functioned against the Friars, Gaston said he’d like it to be even better.

"I feel like at times we did give up a few easy shots and let guys get to certain spots that we were trying to prevent them from getting to. I think as long as we do that, I think we’ll be harder and harder to beat," Gaston said.

Xavier has a monstrous January schedule, which includes a three-game stretch at No. 1 Villanova, at No. 13 Butler and at home against No. 10 Creighton. It also includes the Skyline Crosstown Shootout at No. 23 Cincinnati, a non-conference finale for both teams.

Competition for the Big East regular-season title is officially underway, and winning on the road against the Hoyas is a necessary step in that plateau. The Musketeers also have a chance to close out 2016 with a win.

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