Russell: Xavier's just getting started

Posted at 7:20 AM, Nov 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-21 07:23:29-05

No. 11 Xavier is nowhere near a finished product, but the Musketeers have taken major steps forward in their first five games.

And they’re not even at full strength yet.

Chris Mack’s team improved to 5-0 Sunday night in Florida by winning the Tire Pros Invitational at HP Field House. The Musketeers defeated Northern Iowa 67-59 in the championship -- led by MVP Trevon Bluiett’s 21 points and eight rebounds -- and then hoisted an exempt event trophy for the second straight year.

“Glad I came to Xavier,” an elated Malcolm Bernard wrote on Twitter shortly after the finale. “I’m going to remember these moments for the rest of my life!!!”

In a rare scheduling occurrence, the Musketeers face Northern Iowa again this week. Saturday’s noon game, the first of a home-and-home series with the Panthers, was cemented before the season as a result of Xavier’s exclusion from this year’s Gavitt Tipoff Games.

Now Xavier returns to its home court with an extra dose of moxie after navigating a variety of early-season challenges. Here’s a look at the team through the first part of the non-conference season.

Down with defense

After allowing Missouri 82 points in an overtime thriller and surrendering 77 points to Clemson, Xavier played one if its best games defensively against Northern Iowa. The Panthers slogged through major scoring droughts in the second half and ran out of clock during a comeback bid down the stretch. 

UNI shot just 28 percent after the break, a tribute to Xavier’s ability to lock down the lane and contest 3-pointers. The Panthers never recovered. 

“I thought our effort on the defensive end was phenomenal,” Mack said. “Even when we had our struggles down the stretch it didn’t diminish our effort, our intensity (and) our talk off-the-ball defensively.”

Experience against a potpourri of styles and personnel will only help the Musketeers’ defense. They have faced teams from the Patriot League, Mid-American Conference, Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Missouri Valley Conference, a diverse portfolio requiring different levels of coverage.

Xavier has continued to use its 1-3-1 zone as a curveball while relying mainly on man-to-man defense. 

Defending without fouling continues to be a point emphasis, particularly for the razor-thin frontcourt, but two hallmarks of Mack’s teams are strong defense and improvements throughout the season. Xavier needs the both components to coalesce before the Big East slate.

Manning the frontcourt 

While Xavier’s entire team is a work in progress, its bigs remain under a microscope as a relatively untested unit playing together. 

RaShid Gaston is in his only season at this level after transferring from Norfolk State, Sean O’Mara is aiming for a break-out year after playing behind others his first two seasons and Tyrique Jones is a freshman still adjusting to college play. 

The experience and talent Xavier has at guard – Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura, to start – likely will be the team’s bread and butter all season in terms of production. But the Musketeers will be even more balanced and difficult to defend with the emergence and involvement of post players.

All the frontcourt players have made noise in the last three games. Jones, on one possession against Northern Iowa, walled up caused a Panthers player to make a careless pass that resulted in a turnover. Gaston grabbed a team-second seven rebounds to go with his six points in the same game. O’Mara went scoreless in that outing but contributed 23 points in the prior two games combined.

One of the most interesting subplots of the season will be just how good Xavier’s frontcourt can become.

Rookies contribute

The season opener against Lehigh University is probably one that freshman Quentin Goodin would like to forget. He appeared hesitant and out of his element, amassing as many turnovers as points in 16 minutes.

Mack said in the post-game press conference that Goodin had to stop playing scared. Goodin responded accordingly and played more freely against Buffalo (11 points). 

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for all five games for the point guard, as he is still growing accustomed to Xavier’s system and its emphasis on defense. But he showed flashes of greatness in Florida. His slam dunk against Northern Iowa was part of an outing featuring six points and zero turnovers.

Jones, too, is finding his stride. His challenge is staying on the court – as evidenced by five fouls in nine minutes against Missouri – but when he’s in, he can be a disruptive force for opponents. He is undoubtedly Xavier’s best shot-blocker. 

Better defense and the ability to reach the free-throw line more frequently could add to Jones’ repertoire. Five games in, though, he’s seizing rebounding opportunities and trying to find his groove. 

Even more upside

Xavier survived its first five games without Myles Davis (indefinitely suspended) and Kaiser Gates (minor surgery on his left knee). Twitter was a-flurry with excitement among Musketeers fans after a video showed Gates participating in a shoot-around before Northern Iowa.

The forward's return, however, was not so imminent. After the game, in which Gates did not play, Mack said he “will be back hopefully in the next week or two.”

Gates has been moving around well since his knee scope so it would not be surprising if he returned sooner rather than later. His presence would help Xavier in multiple ways, namely with his size at 6-foot-8 and his ability to reinforce the frontcourt.

Gates also is guard-like in his shooting touch and can pose match-up problems for opponents. Within his unique skill set is the ability to step out and take 3-pointers.

But Davis is still the biggest piece of the puzzle. There’s no word on his return just yet, but even if it’s at the semester, Xavier will benefit immensely from his veteran know-how, his familiarity with Big East opponents and his determination to make the most of his senior season. 

Although he started his career mainly as a long-range shooter and table-setter, last season Davis added a dimension to his game by becoming a driver, too. His return could loft Xavier to even greater heights.