CINCINNATI -- A showdown between the Big East’s top two teams ended in a win for No. 2 Villanova, which defeated No. 24 Xavier 73-57 before 10,558 fans at Cintas Center, but that wasn’t the only bad news the Musketeers sustained Saturday afternoon.
The rest of their season could hinge on the right ankle of junior Trevon Bluiett.
Bluiett initially hurt the ankle Feb. 1 against Seton Hall but managed the pain well enough to score a combined 60 points in that game and the next two. The 6-foot-6 player entered the Villanova outing taped for support before re-injuring himself in the first half.
Although he started the second half, he logged less than two minutes before coach Chris Mack shelved him for the rest of the game.
“We just felt like 70 percent or 60 percent of Trevon out there isn’t going to be effective. And he didn’t want to let his team down. I support the decision. I don’t want to put a guy out there that feels like he’s playing on one leg,” Mack said. “Hopefully he can get treatment and we’ll get him back on the court as soon as we possibly can.”
Bluiett went scoreless for the first time in his Xavier career. Without his league-second 18.7 points per game, Mack and company were forced to find offensive production elsewhere. Thus, RaShid Gaston finished with a Xavier-career high 23 points and 10 rebounds and J.P. Macura added 17 points with seven assists.
Xavier’s effort was consistently strong throughout but its execution was tempered by lack of depth and Villanova’s defense, so even a 42-26 rebounding advantage wasn’t enough to deter the defending national champion.
When Bluiett exited the first time, the Wildcats mounted a 9-0 run and Xavier never regained the lead.
“It was a hellacious run. We just got too far behind the eight-ball. I thought in the second half, we regrouped a little bit but we were also trying to dig ourselves out of an 11-point deficit or 12-point deficit,” Mack said.
Villanova (24-2, 11-2 Big East) entered the game ranked first in the Big East standings and created greater separation with the defeat of Xavier (18-7, 8-4), which started the game in second place. A win would have brought XU within a half-game of the lead but now the Musketeers find themselves in a logjam below the Wildcats.
This season has been an exercise in adversity for the Musketeers.
Starting point guard Edmond Sumner suffered a season-ending ACL tear at St. John’s and is out for the season. The long-awaited return of Myles Davis came and went. Tyrique Jones has battled sore knees for a while; Saturday, trainers eased a left knee issue with ice. He played nine total minutes.
Add Bluiett and his nagging ankle to the equation and XU injuries have become an unfortunate trend.
“This league is becoming a war of attrition, man. Everybody’s losing players,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team played without senior Darryl Reynolds (ribs), freshman Tim Delaney (hip surgery) and junior Phil Booth (knee). “I feel bad for Chris with Sumner out and Trevon getting hurt in the first half. That has a big impact on the game.”
To Gaston and Malcolm Bernard, the Bluiett injury shouldn’t have impacted Xavier so heavily. The Musketeers have a “next man up” mentality and the seniors stuck with that mantra in the post-game press conference despite limited options on the bench and an opponent as difficult as Villanova.
Asked how realistic it was for the team to play better given the circumstances, both Gaston and Bernard said “very realistic.”
“We don’t hang our heads because we lose someone or something doesn’t go our way,” Gaston said. “We’ve got to figure it out with the guys that we’ve got. We’ve got to battle regardless of who’s on the floor.”
Said Bernard: “You can’t make an excuse or you can’t be like, ‘We didn’t have Tre’ because we didn’t have Ed and we found a way. So when we drop another person, like Coach always says, it’s next man up – meaning we’ve all got to assume a higher role and find a way to get it done and tonight we didn’t do that.”
Bernard has played on multiple teams during his college career. He’s never been part of one so injury-addled.
Again, he didn’t make excuses.
“We can’t sit here and dwell on it because Edmond’s gone. We can’t get him back. Myles is gone. We can’t get him back. Trevon is not gone yet. Trevon’s still doing what he has to do to get his ankle together,” Bernard said. “But in that game we just played, we couldn’t get him back. So we’ve got to find a way.”
The true litmus test for Xavier will be its upcoming three-game road swing. The Musketeers play at Providence on Wednesday, at Marquette on Saturday and at Seton Hall the following Wednesday.
Without much time for Bluiett to rest his ankle, the onus will be on point guard Quentin Goodin to be more efficient than his 1-for-14 showing against the Wildcats. Other players will be required to generate additional offensive firepower, from Kaiser Gates to Bernard.
Xavier is expected to fall out of the Top 25 when the new poll comes out Monday but that’s the least of the Musketeers' concerns at this point.
Notes and quotes
Wright collected his 500th career win with Saturday’s victory … the loss snapped Xavier’s four-game winning streak and extended Villanova’s streak to five straight victories … Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo scored 17 points each to lead Nova…Xavier trailed by as many as 18 points. Its final margin of defeat (16 points) was an improvement over the 25-point differential in the teams’ first game Jan. 10 at The Pavilion.