CINCINNATI -- Bring on Big East play.
With Tuesday’s 85-56 drubbing of Eastern Washington before a sold-out crowd of 10,250 at Cintas Center, No. 17 Xavier sewed up the majority of its non-conference schedule minus the Jan. 26 Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout at No. 24 Cincinnati.
After a five-day Christmas break, the team will turn to preparations for its conference opener. The Musketeers' 18-game Big East gauntlet begins Dec. 28 at home against Providence.
Xavier may have started the season ranked seventh in the Associated Press Top 25, but the team limped forward without two players (Kaiser Gates, knee scope, and Myles Davis, suspended). Two transfers and two freshmen needed time to navigate their way, as did a team that leaned heavily on guard play.
The emergence of senior forward RaShid Gaston, who cracked the starting lineup at Colorado, has helped create better balance. Gates has been back seven games and provided an additional frontcourt dimension. Although their play isn’t yet polished, the college game seems to be slowing down for rookies Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin.
Perhaps the biggest question moving forward is the return of Davis, whose suspension appears to be ending soon. Only coach Chris Mack knows that date. Other queries, like Xavier’s ability to distribute the ball as well as it did against Eastern Washington, or its propensity to continue rebounding at a high level, will be answered in the conference.
"We’re 10-2. We played arguably one of the Top 20 schedules in the entire country. That doesn’t make our job from Dec. 28 on any easier, but hopefully it prepares us," Mack said.
"We still have to battle through adversity. There’s not a team in the country that’s not going to hit some adversity. We hit a little bit on the road trips but hopefully we’ve learned from them. We’ve got a long way to go to get better. I think our players recognize that."
Trevon Bluiett scored a team-best 16 points for Xavier against Eastern Washington. Edmond Sumner added 14 points and a career-high-tying nine assists with zero turnovers as XU won a third straight game.
Biggest key moving forward
Ask point guard Sumner what will make Xavier a better team in conference play, and the first thing he’ll tell you is bench play. Specifically, that’s Jones, Goodin, Gates and Sean O’Mara.
The quartet combined for 29 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists (six by Goodin), and three steals against Eastern Washington. The Eagles weren’t the most sturdy opponent, checking in at No. 67 to Xavier’s No. 3 in the NCAA’s latest RPI, but they provided Xavier’s bench opportunities to make up for a four-point combined effort in the prior win over Wake Forest.
"For us to be good, we need our role players to step up and gain confidence. And for me to see Kaiser out there making big shots, that’s a good sign. We have to be deep for us to compete in the Big East," Sumner said.
Gates scored a career-high 12 points by virtue of four 3-pointers and stretched Eastern Washington’s defense. His play on the defensive end was even bigger.
“I think that’s the first thing you see, him making shots, and everybody gets excited including our coaching staff and our team,” Mack said. “But what’s equally exciting is I thought he moved his feet defensively like he did a year ago. He kept the ball in front of him versus a driving team, a team that played four guards the majority of the time, and that’s what we’ve come to expect from Kaiser on the perimeter.”
The longer the bench, the more potent Xavier becomes. Factor in solid play by Sumner, who made good decisions Tuesday in lieu of forcing shots or passes, and the team's upside is exponential.
Defense to the max
Xavier’s offense has been a bit of a roller coaster thus far, but its defense has been consistent in terms of man-to-man coverage and allowance of an average 65.2 points per game.
The 1-3-1 zone Xavier successfully played in spurts last season has been little used in the first 12 games. Mack recently called the zone a “train wreck” for the current team and indicated that it was not practiced often enough to be effective.
Xavier’s pack-line principles have been the answer, even if the team made a departure from that philosophy in the first 10 minutes of the Eastern Washington game. Mack took a different tack to deny Eagles’ star player, Bogdan Bliznyuk, who on film would post up from the top of the key.
"They would put all their other players on the baseline and let him go one-on-one with four of his teammates one foot from the baseline. Thirty times a game. I mean, you don’t see that in grade school. No disrespect. It’s just how they play. So it’s really unique," Mack said.
"Rather than let him catch it there at the top of the key, we said, ‘Hey, we’re just going to get out and deny him. Don’t let him catch it.’ Well, after their first couple possessions, I think their coach realized that and now they moved him around, and so then now we have a guy denying him 40 feet from the basket when they’re not even looking for him as an option. It stretched our other players out, it opened up driving lanes, drive-kick opportunities, so we quickly scrapped that.
"And we got back to who we were in terms of trying to be a tighter defense, not getting anybody spread out, not denying anywhere."
By sticking to what it does best, the Musketeers scored 21 points off 15 turnovers and out-rebounded the Eagles 36-30. They also traded an 11-point deficit for a 29-point lead.
Can Xavier shore up that kind of success against the Friars, and then Georgetown and St. John’s as it moves through the Big East? Stay tuned.