Russell: New-look Xavier frontcourt is rebounding well, beginning to ease fans' concerns

Gaston, O'Mara, Jones platooning well
Posted at 5:13 AM, Nov 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-01 11:01:43-05

CINCINNATI -- One of the top preseason questions surrounding Xavier's men's basketball team focused on its new-look frontcourt and whether the Musketeers could maintain a high rebounding level without the graduated Jalen Reynolds and James Farr.

As it turns out, rebounding hasn't been a problem thus far.

The retooled interior features Sean O'Mara, who's playing more minutes than ever before, as well as Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston and freshman Tyrique Jones. Their composition is much different than Farr and Reynolds in terms of length and shot-blocking abilities, but they've helped XU out-rebound opponents by an average of 10.4 boards in a 7-0 start.

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 19: Sean O'Mara #54 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball against the Georgetown Hoyas at Cintas Center on January 19, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Gaston and Jones have even signed the practice "bubble," which is actually a plug fitted inside the basket to prevent shots from going in during practice drills. Players who retrieve double-figure rebounds in a game are allowed to sign, and Gaston earned the honor with 10 boards against Missouri. Jones did it with 11 rebounds versus Buffalo.

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier's leading rebounder (6.1 per game), also has scrawled his name on the bubble. He recorded 11 rebounds in the season opener against Lehigh.

It's an interesting dynamic, this year's frontcourt. It's not where XU has generated most of its offensive production -- that's been Bluiett and guards like J.P. Macura and Edmond Sumner -- but it has been a font of productivity when players have defended without fouling.

O'Mara, for example, went 6-for-9 for 12 points in Tuesday's 85-55 rout of North Dakota State. He added five rebounds in his 19 minutes of play.

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 29: RaShid Gaston #35 of the Xavier Musketeers shoots the ball during the game against the North Dakota State University at Cintas Center on November 29, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Asked if he felt some redemption based on preseason doubts about the frontcourt, O'Mara said no. The bigs, he said, are just doing their jobs.

"It's not like we're trying to rub anybody's nose in it. We're just trying to basically show what we're capable of as three physical bigs," O'Mara said.

"We're all pretty much back-to-the basket guys, so it's been kind of fun for us to be able to work together … rotating for each other, playing together at times and just being able to do what we've done so far. Hopefully (we can) build on it and keep it going."

Most opponents' frontcourts to date have been smaller than what Xavier will face in Big East play, and the Musketeers' consistency at the rim has been, well, inconsistent. Ideally, XU's bigs would provide an even greater boost in terms of scoring or drawing fouls and reaching the free-throw line.

Establishing that reliability also would ease the guards' conundrum of feeding the post or creating their own shots.

"It's the chicken or the egg. It's like, every big guy wants the ball more, but you invoke confidence from your teammates when you capitalize on those opportunities," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. "It's like, do you need the ball more or do you need to finish the opportunities that you have?"

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 29: Tyrique Jones #0 of the Xavier Musketeers dunks the ball during the game against the North Dakota State University at Cintas Center on November 29, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

On the defensive end, Mack said, the frontcourt is performing much better than it was a year ago. The Musketeers are playing ball screens more aggressively and taking charges from the center position.

"James and Jalen didn't necessarily have to take charges, because they blocked too many shots and altered so many shots. Sean and RaShid … aren't necessarily going to be above-the-rim rim protectors, so we have to do it a different way and hopefully they'll continue to get better in that area," Mack said.

The frontcourt is days away from its toughest test of the early season. Xavier takes on No. 9 Baylor in a Top 10 showdown at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Texas.

Baylor's 7-foot Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. is unlike anyone O'Mara, Gaston or Jones have faced. The junior forward had six blocks in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game against Louisville in the Bahamas.

That's as many blocks as Gaston has had in Xavier's first seven games combined.

Other major threats include Battle 4 Atlantis MVP Johnathan Motley, the Bears' scoring leader (17.8 ppg) and rebounder (7 rpg), and 6-5 guard Ishmail Wainwright (6.3 rpg). They've helped Baylor (6-0) out-rebound foes by an average of 5.7 boards per game.

As the Musketeers cleave into a meaty portion of their non-conference schedule, frontcourt players have a host of opportunities to learn more about themselves and evolve accordingly. O'Mara said they're ready.

"Every game, we're always trying to be better than what we were last time," O'Mara said.