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Russell: Xavier has rebounded to once again dominate the boards

Muskies take their duties on the glass seriously
Russell: Xavier has rebounded to once again dominate the boards
Posted at 7:55 AM, Jan 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-20 07:55:20-05

CINCINNATI -- When Xavier men's basketball coach Chris Mack attended Big East media day in New York in October, reporters wanted to know one thing: How would the Musketeers fill the void left by the departures of rebounding leaders James Farr and Jalen Reynolds?

It was one of the biggest subplots of the preseason, and a valid question.

Last year Farr extended his minutes by cleaning the glass, willfully carrying the team's rebounding mantle with an average of 7.8 boards. Reynolds was close behind with a team-second 6.5 boards per game. The 6-foot-10 forwards were so active on the glass that they accounted for 35 percent of Xavier's rebounds.

Mack rerouted the preseason discussion to the potential of XU's new-look frontcourt. He made no pretense that RaShid Gaston, Sean O'Mara and Tyrique Jones would be as immediately potent as their predecessors, but he recognized great upside in them and their teammates. 

"We have an opportunity to be a really good rebounding team," Mack said.

Three months later, No. 22 Xavier leads the Big East and ranks 21st in the country in rebounding margin.

That margin is plus-7.3, and it's buttressed by a league-second rebounding offense (38.8 rpg) and a league-third rebounding defense (31.6 rpg). Xavier's 11.9 offensive boards per outing also ranks second among the Big East's 10 teams.

Defense and rebounding long have been cornerstones of Xavier's program, but regrouping so quickly on the glass -- especially with a limited roster to start the season -- has posed challenges. Senior guard Myles Davis was suspended for 15 games and sophomore forward Kaiser Gates had a late start due to a knee scope.

Mack initially scaled back box-out drills. Past teams competed more frequently in an exercise where a plastic bubble is placed over the rim to guarantee missed shots and rebounds.

"It's hard because that's been a culture of the last few years, of just putting the bubble up and just going at it. And now we're doing more pad work with our walk-ons, making sure that our technique is right, making sure the ball bounces before we pursue it so we can learn how to seal," Mack said earlier this season.

"One thing I want to make sure is our team is always as good as it can be on the defensive glass. We've got to get better at first-shot defense, but if you don't give teams second and third shots, it puts a lot of pressure on their first one."

In early December, Xavier (13-5, 3-3 Big East) out-rebounded a pair of Top 15 rebounding teams in Baylor and Utah. Xavier thus far has out-worked 15 of its 18 opponents on the boards, falling short only to Wake Forest, St. John's and Butler.

Gaston has led the charge with a league-third 6.9 rebounds per game. The senior corralled an eye-popping 17 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton on Monday at Cintas Center and owns four double-digit rebounding games this season.

O'Mara (3.1 rebounds per game) and Jones (3.0) play fewer minutes than Gaston, and also are less efficient when comparing number of boards to minutes played. Gaston is older and has more experience. His stats also reflect his intense desire to snare every rebound he can.

The difference in personnel from last year to this season, Farr and Reynolds included, has created quite a contrast in rebounding for the entire team through 18 games. Last year's team averaged 2.6 more rebounds in the same frame. Its rebounding margin was plus-9.9.

Keep in mind that the 2015-16 team was also a special group that broke record after record en route to its best Big East regular-season record (14-4) and program-highest NCAA Tournament seed (two).

The season has been a work in progress for a frontcourt that has taken its lumps. Gaston, O'Mara and Jones at times have struggled to score, creating an imbalance that has forced guards to provide the majority of the offense. As post players have missed shots or turned over the ball, guards have looked inside less frequently to feed them.

That situation was apparent as recently as the Creighton loss.

"We have to trust our post guys," Mack said. "They have to continue to improve. Our post guys can score better than they've scored, but we haven't given them a whole lot of confidence up to this point."

Gaston missed two attempts in a four-shot possession that could have given Xavier the lead with 17 seconds left in the 72-67 loss. Those misses weren't the reason the Musketeers lost -- turnovers and missed free throws were major culprits -- but they served as a microcosm of team troubles on a night it shot 40 percent.

On the plus side, the Musketeers out-rebounded the Bluejays 43-33. The outing gave Gaston a chance to shine, and an opportunity for Xavier to reassert a strength after losing the rebounding battle (and game) 48 hours prior at then-No. 12 Butler.

Second-leading rebounder Trevon Bluiett (5.8 rpg) has provided support to a team trying to solve multiple conundrums during a rugged Big East start.

While Farr and Reynolds are long gone, both playing professionally abroad, the Musketeers have taken their duties on the glass seriously. As they continue their diligence there, other priorities have emerged in three straight losses.

"Just taking care of the ball, keep continuing to pay attention to details on both ends of the floor, making free throws and then just hopefully plays go our way," Gaston said.