After coaching four straight teams that struggled to shoot from the outside, Xavier coach Chris Mack is enjoying the benefits of a roster that can make shots at a high clip this year.
One of the most cliché buzzwords used when talking about college basketball teams on the offensive end during March is “spurtability.” Tuesday night the Musketeers showed they have plenty of it as they pulled away from IUPUI for a 66-43 win after a sluggish start.
The Musketeers only needed a 90-second stretch early in the second half. First J.P. Macura, then Remy Abell, then Dee Davis - Boom. Boom. Boom.
They buried three consecutive 3-pointers to extend their six-point lead to a 40-27 advantage, forcing IUPUI head coach Jason Gardner to call a timeout. The damage was done, the Musketeers found their groove and cruised to an easy second half victory instead of having to battle it out to the end against an inferior opponent, as they did too often a season ago.
“It’s nice to be a better shooting team than we were a year ago, but ultimately we’re going to be defined by our defense,” Mack said. “I don’t worry about, when we play together, scoring the ball. I worry about not being able to sustain effort on the defensive end. It’s nice to coach a better shooting team, but we need to become a better defensive team.”
Xavier got off to a horrific start over the first six-plus minutes as IUPUI jumped out to a 10-3 lead at the first media timeout. The Musketeers were just 2-for-5 from the field during that stretch with five turnovers, which the Jaguars were able to convert into six points.
The Musketeers’ offensive woes continued throughout the first half. Their 12 turnovers set a new season high for one half of basketball, and their 27 points set a new season low for one half.
“We were nonchalant,” Mack said. “We were uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball, and I thought we were overanxious to try and make a play each and every time a guy touched it. It just gave us a funny feeling, so we turned the ball over a lot. We were a much better team in the second half, but good teams are consistent.”
“Hopefully this is a lesson learned for our team through a win instead of a loss, but that remains to be seen.”
Xavier’s defense powered an 11-0 run just over 10 minutes into the game, holding the Jaguars scoreless for 4 minutes and 42 seconds and allowing the home team to take a 23-17 lead with 5:28 to go on a pull-up jumper by Remy Abell.
Abell led all scorers with eight points at halftime, as Xavier held a 27-23 lead.
After their struggles taking care of the ball in the first half, the Musketeers didn’t commit another turnover until Abell gave it away with 9:46 left in the game. The Jags finished with 12 points off of 18 Xavier turnovers.
Following those three quick threes that helped Xavier pull away early in the second half, Mack's squad continued the onslaught at both ends.
Perhaps the brightest spot of the game for the Musketeers was their full-court pressure defense, which caused the Jags to cough the ball up a total of 22 times, and helped them go on a 23-4 run in the second half.
”I thought it raised our energy level,” Mack said about his team’s press. “I thought we got some steals and converted a few of them, and we gave up very few layups or threes when we did press. Tonight for the most part when we pressed we either turned them over or were able to settle into our defense, and that’s a good thing with our athleticism and depth.”
Freshman Trevon Bluiett led the Musketeers with 12 points, and also tied James Farr and Jalen Reynolds with a team-high five rebounds. Abell also finished in double figures with 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range.
Xavier closed the game out by giving its bench players some extended playing time. Edmond Sumner played 11 minutes, Sean O’Mara was given eight minutes, and Larry Austin saw five.
Sumner, who returned from severe tendinitis in both knees six games ago against Murray State, has slowly began to look more comfortable on the court. Tuesday night he saw important minutes in the first half and flashed his potential on the defensive end, using his length and quickness to harass IUPUI’s much smaller point guard, P.J. Boutte. He also had three assists and one turnover.
“The assistants said that Edmond had probably his best practice of the year yesterday,” said Mack, who missed practice for the birth of his son, Brayden. “He has so much talent and can play either guard position. He has to be stronger with the basketball and not get bumped around and lose the ball, which he’s learning, but he provides a boost on the defensive end. He can guard point guards or two guards, and he plays with a lot of energy and a lot of length. Edmond keeps getting better and he’s going to keep playing.”
Xavier’s defense held IUPUI to the lowest point total an opponent scored against the Musketeers since the 2008-09 opener when they beat IPFW 71-43, but Mack still wasn’t entirely pleased with his team’s effort after the game.
“Maybe we took a step forward tonight, but without being disrespectful of our opponent we didn’t play a very talented offensive team at this stage of Coach Gardner’s career,” Mack said. “We were better on the defensive end than we’ve been.”