Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

XU's playmakers step up in key road win at Michigan

Xavier picked up a key NCAA tournament resume-building win Friday night in Ann Arbor.

The Dave Gavitt Tipoff Games provided Xavier with a rare opportunity for a true road game against a top 25 opponent in November. 

The Musketeers took full advantage Friday night as they dismantled No. 24 Michigan, 86-70, in front of 11,967 fans at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor. The 16-point victory marked the most impactful November win of the Chris Mack era. 

The next biggest November win during Mack’s tenure was the Musketeers’ 82-70 victory at No. 20 Vanderbilt in 2011. But that Xavier team was ranked 11th in the nation at the time and had to pull out a come from behind win in overtime. This Xavier team entered Friday night’s game as 5.5-point underdogs, and then completely dominated.

“It just shows that if we’re committed to continuing to get better like our team did a year ago, that we can play with a lot of really good teams,” Mack said. “We’re going to need to, because the Big East is really, really good.”

Coaches and players have to focus on one game at a time. For the rest of us, it’s never too early to start thinking about the postseason. Friday’s win was huge as it relates to Xavier’s NCAA tournament resume. 

If NCAA tournament resumes were like real job resumes, a top 25 road win would be the equivalent of experience in an upper-management position at a fortune 500 company. It’s invaluable. 

Conventional wisdom and past history of Chris Mack’s teams suggested that Friday night might be an uphill battle for Xavier. The Musketeers, like most teams, have struggled away from home early in the season the past several years, and they didn’t quite resemble the future national champions in home wins over Miami (OH) and Missouri to start this season. 

However, on Friday night they looked like a confident and disciplined group, while Michigan looked like a team searching for answers. 

In years past, the Musketeers have found their offense to be stagnant early in the season on the road, with guys looking at each other, each waiting on someone else to make the play. Or, they’d lack the energy and intensity needed to consistently get stops on the defensive end away from the Cintas Center.

Friday night, they had multiple playmakers step up with big shots or key plays throughout the game that kept them in control the entire second half. They were also the tougher team on both ends of the court, physically and mentally. 

“Our guys are getting the feel of how to play with one another,” Mack said. “It’s really, really early. We have to get better on both sides of the ball, and we will, but this was a good win for our program.” 

The Wolverines have two starters from last year recovering from offseason injuries in Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht, and neither one looked to be in midseason form yet. John Beilein’s team was overwhelmed with all of Xavier’s offensive weapons and the physicality of Xavier’s players when rebounding. 

XU held a 47-29 edge on the boards.

“It’s a daily plan for us,” Mack said of his team’s relentless effort on the glass. “I want our team to be that team that gets dirt under our fingernails and scraps for everything and plays hard. That’s who we need to be.”

It was a big night for Xavier’s seniors. Remy Abell tied for a team-high with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, and Farr added eight points and 13 rebounds. The impact of both their performances went beyond the boxscore. 

Abell’s first bucket of the game came on an aggressive drive to the rim that caught Michigan’s defense off guard and tied the game up at 16-16 with 10:00 to play in the first half. His second was an and-one finish along the baseline a few possessions later to give the Musketeers a 21-20 lead. On the next trip down, his quick trigger three from the right wing off a pass from Larry Austin pushed the lead to four. However, his biggest shot of the game came just inside the 12 minute mark when he answered Duncan Robinson’s three with a three from the right wing that pushed Xavier’s lead back to five, 59-54, and quieted the Crisler Arena crowd. 

“It was great to see,” Mack said of the big shots his players stepped up and hit. “The play that specifically sticks out was when they cut it to one and then went back into a 2-3. We ran a zone set for Remy Abell, and for him to knock that three down from the wing just kind of told our team that we’re here to stay all the way though the end. And I think it told Michigan that too.”

Most importantly, Abell’s defensive effort on future first-round NBA draft pick Caris LaVert kept him from completely shredding Xavier’s defense. LaVert got off for 29 points, but he did a lot of it off of jump shots (5-8 3PT) and working hard in isolation. He wasn’t able to consistently collapse the defense to make plays for others.

Just as he did against Missouri, Farr stepped up and gave Xavier a boost when Jalen Reynolds came off the court due to foul trouble. He put on an absolute clinic on the boards, hauling in 13 rebounds in 22 minutes. He also had eight points (3-7 FG, 2-2 FT), including a monstrous two-handed tip-dunk with 13:50 to play that extended Xavier’s lead to 56-48.  Ten of his rebounds came in the second half, as he secured possession after possession for the Musketeers with the game on the line. 

Despite facing some foul trouble, Reynolds bounced back well from his scoreless effort against Missouri. He had 15 points (4-8 FG, 7-9 FT) and nine rebounds in 23 minutes in his home state. The Musketeers jump-started his night by running a clear-out play for him on the first possession of the game. Three of Xavier’s players occupied their men on the left side of the floor, while the point guard hit Reynolds at the high post. He caught the ball on his left hip and ripped through to the right, driving Michigan big man Mark Donnal all the way to the rim for an and-one. Reynolds scored the Musketeers’ first four points, and six of the first 12. He kept his emotions in check throughout the game and was dominant to the extent that Xavier used him in his 23 minutes on the court. 

“We had to get Jalen going,” Mack said. “We can win some games, but we can’t win against teams like Michigan and other teams on our schedule if we don’t get Jalen going.” 

“We wanted to get him iso’d on their bigs. Our bigs were really ready to play.”

Myles Davis helped set the tone for Xavier’s confident start on offense when he pulled up and buried a deep three from beyond NBA-range to put the Musketeers ahead 7-0 with 17:30 to play. He didn’t have his best shooting night, as he finished with 14 points on just 3-for-11 from the field and 1-for-3 from distance, but he had a few nice drives to the rim and dished out three assists with one turnover. His playmaking ability off the bounce has been superb so far this season, as teams are still forced to respect his range even when he’s not hitting from the outside.

Just as he was on Tuesday against Missouri, Trevon Bluiett was aggressive attacking off the dribble and confident shooting from the outside. He helped get Reynolds going on the second possession of the game with an assist on a dump-off after driving the lane. His first three, a contested swish on the left wing with 13:44 to play, helped snap a 6-0 Michigan run and ended an 0-for-5 stretch for the Musketeers. He also had the first five points of the second half, answering a layup by Ricky Doyle with a drive and left-handed finish against Zak Irvin, and a three by LeVert with a transition triple of his own from the right wing. His third 3-pointer of the game with eight minutes left pushed Xavier’s lead from four to seven and sparked a 9-0 run that put the game away.  

Those performances were enough to carry the Musketeers, but Chris Mack got even more than that out of his team.

Freshman point guard Edmond Sumner added nine points (3-6 FG, 1-2 3PT), three assists and two rebounds with four turnovers in 21 minutes after missing most of the first half with two early fouls. He helped squelch the momentum in the building with Michigan only trailing by five when he blew Spike Albrecht’s doors off and rose up for a two-handed slam to make it 61-54 with 10:40 to play. And his three from the right wing with 4:55 to play was a dagger that put Xavier up 15, 78-63. He’s still learning and making freshman turnovers, but they’re easy to live with because of his playmaking ability. He was a match-up problem for Michigan’s defense when he was on the court in the second half. 

Sophomore wing J.P. Macura added eight points, two rebounds and two assists in 27 minutes. Both of his threes came at clutch moments. He buried the first one with 3:10 to play in the first half. It broke a 32-32 tie and sparked a 10-2 Xavier run. His second three came immediately after LeVert had buried a three on the other end to cut Michigan’s deficit to two, 61-59. Macura loves to take the big shot, and so far he’s shown a knack for making it. Also, while his scoring ability has gotten a ton of praise this season, his all around effort and improved defense has been a big reason for his increased playing time.

Xavier’s entire team took a step forward on the defensive end in this one. The Musketeers held the Wolverines’ skilled shooters to a pedestrian 1.00 point per possession on their home floor. Outside of LeVert’s 29-point outburst, they held everyone else in check. 

It took Michigan three minutes and 40 seconds before it scored its first points of the game, and Xavier stayed locked in from there. When guys like Macura, Austin and Farr checked in off the bench, there was no drop off in the toughness level and intensity on defense. 

This team isn’t athletically-gifted enough to be dominant defensively and completely shut a team like Michigan down, but it did show that it has enough toughness to lock in for 40 minutes on the road and compete on every possession. And with all the offensive weapons, that’s going to be good enough more times than not. 

Friday night’s win was a huge one for the Musketeers. It doesn’t necessarily make them a great team, but it does put them in a great position going forward if they can continue to take care of business and play close to expectations the rest of the way.

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