Head coach Chris Mack was subbing early and often against Northwood, and foul trouble only caused him to get more creative with his lineup combinations as the game continued.
Here's a look at the most interesting lineup combinations I saw on Saturday:
Sumner, Davis, Abell, Bluiett, and Reynolds - This is the starting lineup Mack used for both the closed scrimmage against Illinois and Saturday's exhibition against Northwood. I wasn't sure how much he'd be willing to go small with Bluiett at the four, but it appears it's not a concern at all. Bluiett led X with nine rebounds on Saturday. This allows the Musketeers to get their best five players on the court at once.
Sumner, Macura, Bluiett, Gates, and Farr - The offensive possibilities are so fun with this team. This gives the Musketeers four perimeter players that can really shoot from distance and pass, plus Farr, who is a monster rebounder and is capable of hitting a jumper, despite his shooting struggles last season.
Austin, Davis, Macura, Gates, and London - I'd be concerned about this unit's defense, but it certainly gives the Musketeers some versatility against a smaller team. Mostly, I was just struck by Gates and London getting on the court at the same time. Plus, the idea of four shooters, including two in the frontcourt, with Austin looking to distribute at the point is fun.
Davis, Macura, Bluiett, Farr, and Reynolds - It was sounding like we may not see much, if any, of Davis at the point this year, but just 12 minutes into the exhibition there he was running the offense. I'm not sure how much they'll use this look, but I actually love this lineup's potential. Davis may not be the optimal point guard, but the perimeter trio with him, Macura and Bluiett gives the defense no margin for error when helping. Also, this unit should rebound the ball extremely well. Davis doesn't go and grab a whole lot of boards, but he does a solid job of boxing out on the defensive end. Bluiett and Macura both seem to have a nose for the ball on the offensive glass, and Reynolds and Farr should be among the conference leaders in rebounding. This is probably a group that could see some time when Mack is looking to go 1-3-1.
Austin, Sumner, Davis, Gates, and O'Mara - I'm not sure how often we'll see these two post players playing together this season, but I chose this lineup more because of the fact that all three point guards were playing at the same time. Coincidentally, Northwood tried to slap a press on when this unit was on the court and they quickly broke it and turned it into a transition opportunity that ended with O'Mara getting fouled on an aggressive dunk attempt. Looking forward to next year without Farr and Reynolds, this could be a solid five that possesses plenty of skill on offense and the versatility to match-up on defense. Austin, Sumner and Davis put a lot of pressure on opposing guards with how all three attack off the dribble.
2. Point Guards Play Well
The point guard position was one of the biggest question marks hovering over an otherwise experienced and promising Xavier team heading into the preseason, but redshirt freshman Edmond Sumner and sophomore Larry Austin showed on Saturday why Chris Mack is confident in turning the team over to them.
Sumner finished with a team-high 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 1-of-3 from 3-point range and 6-of-7 from the free-throw line, to go with an assist, a block, a steal and a turnover in 16 minutes of action. Austin had 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, including 2-of-3 from the charity stripe. He also had four rebounds, a steal, an assist, and a turnover in 23 minutes.
"I don't worry (about them)," Mack said. "Our point guards are very, very coachable guys. They're two really talented guys."
The only drawback to both of their performances was the fact that they were in foul trouble throughout. Sumner fouled out with just over four minutes to play, and Austin finished with four fouls. There was a stretch where both of them had to go to the bench and Myles Davis slid over to point guard.
On offense, Sumner's first step and quickness gave the Timberwolves trouble as he was consistently able to find his way into the lane and get fouled or score. He had a brilliant sequence at the end of the first half that included an assist to Farr for an and-one, a running bank shot after a nice move and an out of rhythm three on the right wing all in a matter of four possessions. Defensively, he played with his hands too much which got him called for fouls.
"I think Ed has to be better on the defensive end," Mack said. "He's ultra-talented on the offensive end… he played really well on offense, but he has to do a better job defensively. He's 6-6 and he's trying to guard a 5-9 water bug, which is a big challenge, but last time I checked he's going to be having some challenges on a nightly basis during the season."
Austin picked up the pace when he came into the game. He sped up the Musketeers' offense in the halfcourt, and finished well when he made his own opportunities by pushing the ball in transition. His energy, communication skills and toughness made a noticeable impact on defense as well, especially in the second half.
"Larry was excellent on both ends of the floor," Mack said. "He has a big-time pulse. He brings a lot of energy to our team. I love the way he played."
As mentioned above, at one point we even saw them on the court at the same time. I like Austin at the one and Sumner at the two together. I don't know how often that lineup will be played this year because there are so many options at the two, but Austin's pace and energy really lends itself to the way Xavier wants to play on offense with this team, which is fast. His energy seemed to spark Sumner a little bit when he was able to slide off the ball. It also forces defenders to deal with Sumner's jab moves and quick first step off the catch, which seems to be where he's most comfortable breaking defenders down at this stage in his development.
3. Involving the Bigs
After the game in the media room, one of the main topics of conversation was the quiet night from the Musketeers' big men, particularly Jalen Reynolds.
And understandably so. In a game where five Xavier players scored in double figures, Reynolds finished 2-of-7 from the field with seven points against an undersized Division II team, and that was coming off of reports that he was underwhelming for most of a closed scrimmage against an undersized and depleted Illinois team.
However, when the topic was brought up to Mack, he was dismissive, noting that Northwood was double-teaming the post while also allowing that this year's team is going to be more perimeter-oriented by default because the Musketeers' big men aren't as skilled offensively as Matt Stainbrook was last season.
"Number one, we don't have monster post players," Mack said. "We don't have a guy like Matt Stainbrook who is going to give us 20 points a night in there. Having said that, Jalen got double-teamed when he caught the ball outside the box, so I don't want him forcing shots like he did in the second half. You have to do what the game tells you to do."
All of that is true.
Northwood brought post help in an effort to get the ball out of Reynolds' hands once he caught it, and to his credit he made mostly good decisions. He's underrated as a passer.
But it could also be true that there will be an adjustment period needed for this year's group to figure out how to maximize Reynolds' potential while still swinging the ball around the perimeter and playing at a faster pace.
This playing style is much different from the way the Musketeers ended last season where they were basically throwing the ball into Stainbrook a few feet off the block, waiting to see if the other team doubled him or not while he crab-dribbled toward the basket, and then played from there.
This year both Reynolds and the guards may find that they have to be a little more efficient when getting the ball inside. He's not going to get near the amount of touches that Stainbrook did, so when teams switch a bad matchup onto him or he has his man sealed on his hip, it's imperative that the guards get him the ball right then and he finishes.
Another aspect to consider is that with Saturday's game being an exhibition, Mack wasn't calling a bunch of set plays from the sideline to ensure Reynolds was freed up for plenty of scoring opportunities, something the coaching staff did a great job of last year. When real games are on the line, you can expect they'll be calling the big man's number a few times per half.
Reynolds finished with game with seven rebounds, three blocks, one assist, one steal and two turnovers in 21 minutes, so it wasn't like he didn't have an impact. It's fair to expect a big season out of him while also wondering if it may take some time for his teammates to figure out the best ways to get him involved.