CINCINNATI -- With a 72-61 defeat of DePaul firmly in hand Wednesday at Cintas Center, No. 24 Xavier turned its sights to Saturday's high-stakes rematch against No. 2 Villanova on the same court.
The 2:30 p.m. showdown pits the league-leading Wildcats against the second-place Musketeers. While a victory over Nova won't vault the Musketeers (18-6, 8-3 Big East) into first place in the conference standings, it would loosen Villanova's (23-2, 10-2) grip on the leaderboard and provide some separation from third-place Butler.
Plus, there's the matter of avenging Villanova's 79-54 drubbing at The Pavilion on Jan. 10.
"It's huge. I think all the team knows it's huge," Xavier forward Kaiser Gates said. "We have to pay attention to detail this coming week in practice, pay real close attention, and work on how to score on their zone."
Xavier is a much different team personnel-wise since it last faced the Wildcats. Gone are Edmond Sumner, who scored a team-high 11 points in the loss, and Myles Davis.
Rookie Quentin Goodin has manned the point with growing confidence since Sumner's ACL tear, and the Musketeers' frontcourt, including fellow freshman Tyrique Jones, has played a significant role in a four-game winning streak.
Factor in the elite-level scoring of Trevon Bluiett – despite a banged-up right ankle - and the complexion of the rematch could be different on a court where XU is 11-1.
Coach Chris Mack knows the challenges ahead in preparing for Jay Wright and company.
"We've got to be a lot mentally tougher than we were the first time we played them, than we were (against DePaul), and that takes guts, that takes fortitude, that takes discipline, toughness," Mack said. "Because Villanova, when they get down, they certainly don't quit. They respond. They've seen so many different situations."
About the DePaul win
The Musketeers extended DePaul's losing streak to seven and denied it a first road win this season by dominating the rebounding battle (37-22) and shooting 49.1 percent throughout Wednesday's outing.
Xavier hit five of its first seven 3-point attempts, led by Malcolm Bernard's 3-for-3 start beyond the arc, and found separation late in the first half. RaShid Gaston unlocked a 29-all tie with a dunk and scored nine of his career-high 14 points in the last 2:35.
Gaston cemented Xavier's 41-34 halftime edge with a 3-point play after Eli Cain fouled him with 1.3 seconds left.
The Musketeers led by as many as 15 points, thanks to Bluiett (20 points, seven rebounds), J.P. Macura (13 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Gates (a career-high 10 rebounds). Goodin had a career-best eight assists.
The biggest problem Xavier faced was its own turnovers. DePaul (8-16, 1-10) scored 19 points off XU's season-high-tying 19 miscues.
"I think it was more self-inflicted than DePaul's defense," Gaston said. "I think at times we let the ball stick too much in one guy's hands, and we just had to get back to sharing the ball with one another."
Mack attributed the inordinate number of mistakes to fatigue.
"We still have to better with the ball, especially when our freshman (Goodin) only has two, goes eight assists and two turnovers, and despite being in foul trouble played a really good floor game. We've got to get some help from our perimeter players being stronger with the ball," Mack said.
Five turnovers came from Macura, who has assumed back-up point guard duties for Goodin. In fairness to Macura, his contributions in high school and beyond have not been centered on setting up teammates. He's more comfortable as an aggressive scorer.
But he's the player Mack felt was best suited to take over the back-up role after Sumner was shelved. Mack said he considered Bluiett for the part but did not want to compromise the junior's ability to come off screens and score.
"That's really difficult if he's coming down playing the point. Not to mention I want his legs fresh, I want his mind fresh. I don't want him dogged by a point guard at 94 feet, trying to bring the ball up," Mack said. "Those guys are all capable of it but we just decided to go with J.P. We like his toughness and he's a very coachable kid."
Goodin grows up
Goodin has handled himself well since Sumner's injury, playing with more comfort on the offensive end with each outing. His defense has long been among his strong suits, but his ability to find his teammates has provided a valuable resource in the wake of Sumner's unexpected departure.
DePaul coach Dave Leitao was asked if teams around the Big East might increase pressure on Goodin, considering his newness to the starting role and freshman status. Not necessarily, Leitao said.
"Part of the problem is that once they get out of it, either half court or whole court, there's a lot of skill guys," Leitao said. "So you've got to be really careful if you're going to just start pressing them because once you get over the top, I wouldn't trust my defense against Kaiser Gates with the ball at 22 feet…or a lot of those guys for that matter. So you've got to be really careful."
Mack hasn't seen a big difference in the way opponents have played Goodin versus Sumner. A lot of teams go under the ball screen being set for Goodin, but "that's no different than when Ed played."
"We've seen a little bit more pressure than maybe teams have shown prior to it. But hey, the more we see it, the more we're going to get better against it and the more that our guys will be able to solve it and be strong with the ball and be able to finish in those situations. So bring it on. We're fine," Mack said.