Russell: Win over St. John's keeps Xavier atop Big East standings

Russell: Win over St. John's keeps Xavier atop Big East standings
Posted at 9:14 PM, Jan 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-07 21:46:14-05

CINCINNATI -- The biggest news out of Cintas Center Saturday came shortly after No. 16 Xavier crushed St. John’s in a 97-82 rout before 10,474 fans.

The news wasn’t about the game. It was coach Chris Mack’s announcement that embattled guard Myles Davis would return to basketball practice Sunday following a 129 day suspension.

“He’s met the terms of his suspension, which were outlined to him at the beginning of the school year when he was suspended,” Mack said. “I think he’s learned some valuable lessons from his mistakes, his 15-game long suspension and his reinstatement.”

The reinstatement collides with the start of second semester, and Davis’ return is timely from a scheduling perspective. The Musketeers face No. 1 Villanova, No. 18 Butler and No. 10 Creighton within a week.

So just how big is Davis’ return? The 6-foot-2 senior guard is the only player on the roster who has been a Musketeer all four years of his career and thus has immense institutional knowledge.

Davis arrived on campus a year before he started playing and began his Xavier experience solely as a student. An issue with prep school credits rendered him ineligible, so he and former teammate Jalen Reynolds (also ineligible in 2012-13) watched from afar. They traveled together to Dayton to watch – from the stands – XU’s loss at UD Arena.

Davis remains well-liked among Xavier players and will be welcomed back in the locker room. But, as Davis said on Twitter, he knows “there are going to be people that aren’t going to look at me the same.”

On the court, Davis’ consistency from the free-throw line and accuracy from 3-point range could be the difference between wins and losses. His evolution from a spot shooter to a driver has made him more difficult to defend, and his poise under pressure has lifted the Musketeers in clutch situations.

Because of all his attributes, including vocal leadership, Davis may take this Xavier team to an entirely new level.

Implications of the St. John’s win

Xavier extended its winning streak to six straight, improved to 13-2 (3-0 Big East) and retained its solo perch atop the Big East standings.

The Musketeers racked up a season-high 97 points behind five double-figure scorers, led by Edmond Sumner (20 points, seven assists) and Trevon Bluiett (15 points, six rebounds). Kaiser Gates added a career high 17 points in his best game to date.

Xavier trailed by nine early but quashed an upstart Red Storm team that, coach Chris Mullin said, didn’t play defense well enough.

“I thought we were very soft,” Mullin said. “Defensively we were porous and basically let them do whatever they wanted to do. We scored 82 points, but the game was basically over. We’re not going to have a problem scoring. We’ve got scorers – we know that. We’ve got to put an imprint on the game as a group and not individually.”

Bluiett emerged from a scoring slump, converting a lay-up at 12:54 that ended an early Red Storm surge.

The Musketeers mounted a 26-5 run, in fact, and never trailed again. A Tariq Owens stickback dunk out of the timeout ended St. John’s 8:36 field goal drought, but the damage Xavier doled out by then was beyond salvaging.

Xavier scored 34 field goals on 21 assists throughout, underscoring players’ unselfishness with the ball, and collected 23 points off turnovers to hand St. John’s (8-9, 2-2) a second straight loss.

“I felt like we played OK together earlier in the season, but now I feel like we’re really going right now,” senior guard Malcolm Bernard said. “And everybody’s having fun, everybody loves one another and obviously it’s showing out there on the floor.”

Enjoy him while you can

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and former NBA star Mullin was asked about Sumner’s upside as a professional player on the heels of the point guard’s second straight 20-point game. Sumner scored 48 points combined against Georgetown and St. John’s.

“I like him a lot,” Mullin said. “Really good player. He’s got nice size, quickness, good change of pace.”

Sumner’s play-making abilities were an element of his game when he arrived at Xavier, but his defense was a work in progress. Mack said Sumner’s defensive level now compared to last season is “not even close.”

“I think he’s made a big leap offensively but (defensively) he’s made a double big leap, if that’s that a great way to describe,” Mack said. “He’s locked in off the ball. He uses his length so much better on guys that he defends.

"He’s a problem. He can block shots. He can defensive rebound and start our break. But just his awareness of what the other team’s trying to do and recognizing actions is probably where he’s grown the most.”

It’s not just that the 6-foot-6 sophomore is making better decisions. Mack said Sumner is playing just the way Xavier needs – aggressively, downhill, drawing fouls and finishing better in the lane.

Shout-out for the freshmen

Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin both had productive outings. Jones relieved RaShid Gaston and Sean O’Mara when they became mired in foul trouble and finished with a career high 10 points and five rebounds, while Goodin scored four points with three assists in 20 minutes.

“That was Quentin Goodin’s best game, and it was exciting to see,” Mack said. “He had a couple drives off pick-and-roll, looked at the top of the key (and) 10,500 fans looked at the top of the key, along with me. And he dumped it underneath to Tyrique.”

Jones had a rim rattling dunk took a charge in one sequence that left St. John’s with an empty possession on a third straight trip up the court.

“(He) had some good, some bad, but more good. And (he) really, really rebounded the ball. Finished like we expect him to finish around the basket against a very athletic team,” Mack said.

Both players seek better consistency but have shown vast improvement in 15 games. Their development under Mack is evident at the midway point of the regular season, which bodes well for the Musketeers as they continue their hunt for a Big East regular-season title.

Next up for Xavier

The Musketeers play at Villanova at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Wildcats 15-1 (3-1) will likely fall from No. 1 in Monday’s rankings by virtue of a Jan. 4 loss at Butler – but polls aside, Jay Wright’s cast of players are sure to provide Xavier with an immense challenge.

National player of the year candidate Josh Hart (19.8 ppg) probably hasn’t forgotten how XU defeated Villanova last February, fresh off a No. 1 ranking. And the Musketeers probably haven’t forgotten how Villanova thumped them by 31 points last season on a night Sumner suffered a scary fall and concussion.

Subplots abound in what could be the best college hoops game of the week.