This entire season, it’s felt like the Xavier basketball team has been waiting on something – that last bit of whatever bridging the gap from being a talented group that shows promise in the future to being a team that plays consistently well enough to take their show on the road and realistically win a stretch of games at a neutral site in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
“Yeah,” head coach Chris Mack responded when asked if his team was still searching for something Saturday after the Musketeers’ win over Providence. “The frustrating thing is at times we find it. Great teams bottle it up and do it for 40 minutes. This team still hasn’t learned to do that.”
The Musketeers are hoping over what’s been a tumultuous last three games they’ve found what it is they’ve been waiting for in the emergence of 6-10 sophomore big man Jalen Reynolds. While Xavier dropped games at Seton Hall and at home against Creighton last week before taking down Providence 78-69, Reynolds was dominant for three straight important conference games with no dip in his focus or production while he was on the court.
“He’s staying on the floor,” Mack said. “He’s avoiding fouls for the most part, and when he does that his talent level takes over. He’s always been a talent, but the game is starting to slow down for him on both ends of the floor.”
“I would just say on the offensive and defensive end, just effort,” Reynolds added about what’s started clicking for him over the last few weeks. “Going out there and playing with energy, Bringing energy off the bench and just playing hard.”
Outside of having unrealistic expectations for a freshman like Trevon Bluiett, who was also great against Providence on Saturday with 19 points, to carry the team consistently or expecting seniors like Dee Davis or Matt Stainbrook to be something they haven’t been throughout the course of their careers, there aren’t a lot of reasons to think this team possesses upside or has the ability to change what it is in the final weeks of this season. But Reynolds playing like he has over the course of the last three games is one reason to hold out hope if you’re a Musketeers fan.
Him being on the court more can offer upside on the offensive and defensive ends for Xavier.
Reynolds has been extremely efficient over the last three games, averaging 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds while shooting 76 percent from the field. Ever since he arrived on campus, coaches have encouraged him to dunk everything around the rim every time he’s in the lane, and he’s finally reaching that point – six of his nine field goals on Saturday were dunks.
“That’s a big signature of my abilities on the court, dunking the ball,” Reynolds confirmed after the game.
But his offensive game goes beyond that. Working with big man coach Mike Pegues, Reynolds has become collected and confident when working on the block with his back to the basket, and he now possesses a myriad of post moves, the hardest to guard being his jump hook.
When you factor in his underrated passing ability, he’s essentially developing into a big man that the Musketeers can run their offense through, similar to Stainbrook, though certainly not as adept a passer as his senior teammate. He’s also a guy that they can run more set plays for than Stainbrook because of his athleticism and ability to slash when facing the basket.
Defensively, he brings two significant upgrades when he’s playing at the center position for Xavier. The first is the most obvious, which is that he’s mobile. His athleticism and ability to move his feet allows the Musketeers to defend ball screens the way they intend to. He also provides a rim protector in the back of their defense. Though not an elite shot blocker, Reynolds’ physical attributes allow him to make special plays, such as his block at the end of regulation in the Creighton game to force overtime. At the very least, he forces the opposing offensive players to think about him when driving the lane and can alter their shots, which is something a defense that lacks foot speed can greatly benefit from.
Reynolds’ progression has been the reverse of what most players experience when entering college basketball. While many freshmen are held back by their physical strength, he entered his freshman season last year with the frame of a junior or senior, which allowed him to get on the court and make an impact right away. And possibly as a result of that, it slowed his learning curve in terms of the system, especially on the defensive end. Being able to get by on athletic ability alone can be a gift and a curse as a young athlete.
This year has still been a huge learning process for the sophomore, but Mack is seeing growth, especially in the win over Providence where the Musketeers switched defenses between the man-to-man and multiple zone looks in the second half with Reynolds on the court most of the time.
“Offensively, he understands where to be, and defensively he’s really starting to grasp concepts,” Mack said. “We could have never changed defenses on the fly in the past and felt like Jalen was going to be able to do that. In his sophomore year, he’s really transformed. He’s really starting to get the hang of college basketball.”
The work isn’t over for the big man. Three games doesn’t mean he’s shaken all bouts with consistency, even if playing for a career-best and second best 30 and 28 minutes against Creighton and Providence respectively was a major step forward. Handling success won’t be easy in the stretch run of the season. He’ll be watching himself on Fox Sports Live’s top 10 highlight reel, hearing/reading people say a lot of nice things about him and rising up the list of priorities on every opponent’s scouting report.
But his talent isn’t in question, and if the coaches can continue to rely on him for 30 minutes game he’ll have the chance to make a major impact each night. And that gives this Xavier team the promise of upside with just seven games left in the regular season.
Reynolds was talking about whether his off the backboard alley-oop from Dee Davis that served as the exclamation point to the Musketeers’ win over Providence was the best of his career when he gave the following quote, but he could have just as easily been talking bigger picture about Saturday’s performance and his career:
“I guess you could say that, but its still more to come,”