CINCINNATI – After losing back-to-back road games, No. 10 Xavier faced a unique juncture upon its return to Cintas Center for Saturday’s game against No. 25 Creighton.
It could succumb to a third straight loss, unmoored by a collective lack of energy, careless turnovers and spotty defense. Or it could return to the win column by converting defense to offense and creating good shots.
The Musketeers chose the latter. They handed Creighton a 92-70 defeat and snapped the Bluejays’ four-game winning streak along the way.
“I think it was a great win for us to kind of get our confidence, get our swagger back rolling again,” junior Kaiser Gates said.
Trevon Bluiett led the Musketeers (16-3, 4-2 Big East) with 24 points and Gates added 16 points and eight rebounds. Creighton (14-4, 4-2) was paced by Marcus Foster’s 16 points.
Here are the top takeaways from the outing:
1. A lineup shake-up paid dividends
Coach Chris Mack said earlier this week that he wasn’t averse to mixing up the starting lineup to jump-start the Musketeers, and he made good on that sentiment Saturday.
Naji Marshall and Kerem Kanter played so well at Providence and Villanova that they earned starting nods in place of Kaiser Gates and Tyrique Jones. Mack credited Marshall’s energy on the glass and good defense for his place in the starting rotation. Kanter has been consistently solid, with a combined 40 points in the prior two games.
Whether it was the lineup change, the home crowd of 10,655 or the collective desire to start a game with authority, Xavier had no energy shortage. The Musketeers forced five turnovers before the first media timeout.
Gates came off the bench to play one of his best games all season. He attacked the glass for offensive rebounds, converted putbacks and made shots from the perimeter to the free-throw line.
Jones was the only scholarship player that did not play, and that was largely due to a right hand injury. He banged his hand at practice the day before and wasn’t feeling 100 percent, Mack said.
2. For XU, it all started with defense
Creighton has thrived this season by taking care of the ball and minimizing fouls. The Jays didn’t excel in either area against Xavier, coach Greg McDermott said, and that’s why they lost.
XU scored 21 points off Creighton’s 20 turnovers.
“I think that when you get a few opportunities because of your defense, out in transition, guys running the lanes, getting an open three, then you’re not faced with so many half-court possessions where other teams scout, they play hard. It’s more difficult to score at times against a half-court set defense,” Mack said.
Creighton entered the game averaging a Big East-best 89.9 points but finished with its second-lowest point total this season.
Khyri Thomas normally averages 14.9 points but went a 0-for-8 and contributed just two points via free throws. Martin Krampelj eked out four points, down from his usual average of 12.8. Toby Hegner (9.6 ppg) made two free throws.
3. Trevon Bluiett's shooting woes disappeared
It was fitting that former Musketeers player Matt Stainbrook was at practice earlier this week and in attendance at Saturday’s game, because Stainbrook struggled mightily with his confidence during his senior season.
A five-point performance in a 2015 loss at DePaul weighed heavily on him. It took a monster double-double at Creighton several weeks later for Stainbrook to shore up his confidence.
So Stainbrook knew exactly what Trevon Bluiett endured in Xavier’s prior eight games. Bluiett shot just 34.2 percent in that stretch and lacked the smooth, quick-trigger shooting that has characterized his Musketeers career.
Bluiett regained that stride against the Jays, burying five 3-pointers and grabbing five rebounds in his 24-point afternoon. It wasn’t a flawless game, as he led the team in turnovers as well (4), but it was the kind of day the senior desperately needed.
4. Mack achieved a milestone
With the Creighton win, Mack tied Pete Gillen atop Xavier’s all-time wins list (202 victories). He could break the record Wednesday against St. John’s.
Mack has never been one for personal accolades, which is why Marshall, Gates and Kanter had no idea he’d even secured one when asked in their post-game press conference.
That was just fine with their coach. He said win No. 202 was about a series of games, not just the Creighton game, and it was more a tribute to the players who competed in the outings.
“When I played in 1992 – or at least was on the team; I didn’t play a whole lot – we didn’t think of it as ‘Pete Gillen’s wins’ when we won a game. We just didn’t,” Mack said.
“And when we get together and I see guys like Tyrice Walker and Erik Edwards and Brian Grant, we don’t call Coach Gillen and say, ‘Hey, have a beer and let’s talk about all the games you won.’ And I don’t think those guys in the locker room will do that in 30 years either. That’s why they probably don’t know, because they don’t feel that way. And I don’t feel that way, either.”