When Remy Abell left Indiana following his sophomore season, nights like Wednesday at the Cintas Center are what he envisioned when he decided to come to Xavier.
With his team’s lead teetering at eight following a pair of Josh Smith free-throws with way too much time left (4:33 in the second half), Abell received a pass from Dee Davis in the corner and swished a three. The shot was a knockout blow that drained the Hoyas of whatever run they had left, and the Musketeers went on to win 70-53.
“It was a great shot,” Abell said. “Shout out to Dee for finding me. I just wanted to knock it down with confidence, and I was happy I was able to come through for my team. It was a big win for us.”
It was just one play in a game that featured many big ones for the Musketeers. But somehow, it felt like much more than that. It was a statement by a guy who has made several of them recently building up to that moment.
Over the last three games, Abell has gone from a nice complementary piece to quite possibly the Musketeers’ best all-around player. He’s a monster athlete in transition, a tough penetrator in the ball-screen offense, a knockdown shooter (40.6%) from beyond the arc, and most importantly the best defender on the team. Not to mention, he’s been willing to step up and be the go-to guy when the game is on the line.
“I wanted to come in and make an impact right away when I was able to step on the court,” Abell said. “I’m happy I’m able to do it on the defensive and offensive end. I just come out and play hard and play with energy. These are the types of games you prepare for and get ready to win.”
It started in the second half of the Musketeers’ loss at Auburn. With Dee Davis out of the game with foul trouble, Abell kept Xavier in the game by getting aggressive on offense and drawing fouls on the Tigers. He finished with a team-high 18 points in that game, including knocking down a pair of free throws with three seconds left to send the game into overtime.
He followed that up with a team-high 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting against Florida Gulf Coast.
Wednesday night he finished with 12 points, including two big threes – the previously mentioned one, and a shot clock beating bailout triple from the top of the key with 10:50 left in the first half to push Xavier’s lead to nine at the time, 19-10.
And then there was his defense.
He worked relentlessly on the defensive end for 33 minutes, most of those spent guarding the Preseason Big East Player of the Year, D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. Smith-Rivera finished with 18 points on a fairly efficient 5-for-9 shooting effort, but Abell was able to bottle him up with the game on the line and limit his damage by only allowing him to get off nine field goal attempts.
Abell’s progress has coincided with his comfort level within Xavier’s system. That development has been visible on the court. He started out as a tough on-ball defender, but wasn’t always properly positioned in off the ball rotations. As he gained more confidence in his knowledge of the system, he not only improved his on-ball defense but got himself to the point where he’s a step ahead of the offense because of his mental toughness in executing the system and his ability to hone in on the game plan for that specific assignment. He now makes everyone playing around him better on that end.
"I do think that Remy excels when you give him a challenge and he had the biggest challenge on the team to try to hold serve against D'Vauntes (Smith-Rivera), who's as talented a guard as there is in our conference," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Remy did an excellent job. He didn't get rejected on one ball screen tonight. A lot of times, DSR refuses that ball screen and goes away from it, and guys just get duped. I don't think Remy got duped one single time tonight. It's a credit to his ability to stay locked in and his talent level."
It’s similar to his development on the offensive end, where he went from a guy who scored mostly in transition and on the occasional three, to as dangerous a weapon as the Musketeers have in their half court offense.
“I’m learning every day,” Abell said. “Coach Mack and the coaching staff are doing a great job of teaching me. My teammates are doing a great job of finding me, so I’m just trying to take advantage of what the defense is giving me.”
Abell’s performance was far from the only standout effort the Musketeers had in Wednesday night’s big win.
Sophomore big man Jalen Reynolds finished with 17 points (6-10 FG) and four rebounds, and had some big momentum plays for the Muskies.
Jalen’s starting to play well,” Mack said. “He played really well at Auburn, he played well against Florida Gulf Coast. Tonight I thought he did a terrific job of recognizing actions away from the ball. If Jalen can stay out of foul trouble and play disciplined basketball, he’s as talented as any power forward in our conference.”
Dee Davis also finished with 12 points (3-6 FG, 1-1 3PT) and five assists.
James Farr played an important role with nine points (3-3 FG, 1-1 3PT) and 10 rebounds.
Despite dealing with a stomach bug, Matt Stainbrook had eight points, seven rebounds, and provided enough muscle on the defensive end to hold 6-10, 350-pound Georgetown center Josh Smith to 10 points (3-7 FG) and four rebounds.
”I heard on Fox Sports 1 before the game that Xavier was going to have to double Josh Smith, and we didn’t,” Mack said. “We crowded him, but we crowd all our post players that we play against, unless they’re a stiff. We didn’t double on Josh. We did a great job of forcing his catches a little bit farther away from the basket.”
Myles Davis came off the bench to score eight points with two big threes. He also did an impressive job running the show as the point guard when Dee left the game in the second half briefly with three fouls. Mack praised Davis’ leadership, putting him in the same category as Abell with the way he’s stepped up lately.
“We played Myles Davis at the point tonight,” Mack said. “He hasn’t taken many reps (at point guard), but he’s like the old guy at the YMCA that picks four guys and his team always wins.”
The Musketeers did all of this and pulled off the 17-point win with leading scorer Trevon Bluiett going 0-for-6 from the field with four points. Mack said after the game that he had been battling sickness over the last week, and that the freshman would bounce back.
That’s true. But right now the Musketeers have the luxury of letting him be a freshman.
With Abell’s development as a leader and go-to option for this team, Mack now has a reliable veteran core in Dee Davis, Stainbrook and Abell that he can lean on in critical moments, allowing the rest of the young and talented supporting cast to focus on providing the spark their capable of, while also developing their game at their own pace.