Exactly one week after Xavier went to Ann Arbor and dismantled No. 24 Michigan on the Wolverines' home floor, the Musketeers turned in their second attention-grabbing performance of the season by handling USC 87-77 in the semifinals of the Advocare Invitational in Orlando.
The game wasn't nearly as close as the final score indicates.
Xavier blitzed the Trojans from the opening tip, and raced out to a 54-27 halftime lead. The Musketeers' lead reached its largest point at 61-29 near the 17 minute mark of the second half.
All 11 eligible scholarship players scored in the first half of action, as the Musketeers averaged 1.39 points per possession.
"We knew the importance of this game," senior big man James Farr said. "In years past, we really haven't gotten to a championship game, so that was in our mind… If we won this game, we'd be heading there to possibly win a championship. Coach got us right. We had the right scout, and we went out there and performed."
The first 20 minutes provided a glimpse of how special this Xavier team can be when its firing on all cylinders. The Musketeers did everything well.
Their energy, aggressiveness and toughness was at a different level than USC's, just like it was compared to Michigan's last week. That, even more than the gaudy offensive statistics, has stood out in XU's two most impressive performances so far this year.
"At times we're playing really good basketball," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "And we just have to get that more consistent."
Last year, when the Musketeers left the Cintas Center early in the season, they often looked like a team that lacked answers and couldn't power themselves over the hump without the support of the home crowd. At Michigan, and now both games in Orlando, Mack's men have set a tone with their approach.
They're defending, they're rebounding, and they're attacking and drawing fouls on the offense. That last one, particularly with officials' emphasis on freedom of movement for the offensive player, has been as important to their success as anything.
As seen in XU's opening round matchup of the Advocare Invitational against Alabama when the Musketeers went 0-for-7 from the field to start the game, shots aren't always going to fall, especially away from the friendly confines of the Cintas Center. Having the mental toughness and the right attitude to keep running good offense and attacking during offensive droughts is essential to winning on the road.
"I'm probably not the right spokesperson to talk about fouling around college basketball, the increase (in fouls being called), and all that stuff," Mack said when asked about the amount of fouls being called. "I would tell you, offensively we're trying to use it to our advantage. We're trying to spread teams out, drive them, and get to the foul line."
Xavier made 22-of-29 free throw attempts against USC while the Trojans only attempted 13. For the season, Xavier has made 136 free throws while its opponents have attempted 111. The Musketeers are shooting 76.8 percent at the line, which ranks 30th in the country and is eight percentage points better than the national average.
"To me, that usually tells the story of who's more aggressive," Mack said. "Hopefully (the refs) continue to call it like they've talked about consistently throughout the year, and if they do we'll keep trying to take advantage of it (on offense), and we'll keep learning on the defensive end how to defend without fouling."
Xavier is currently scoring 28.7 percent of its points at the free-throw line, which is the ninth highest rate in the country. The national average is 21.2 percent. On the other end, the Musketeers have done a good job of playing without fouling too much. Their opponents are scoring 20.2 percent of their points at the charity stripe.
The impact of playing aggressive and drawing fouls on the other team goes beyond just scoring easy points and increasing offensive efficiency. In Friday's game, Xavier was able to take talented USC freshman Bennie Boatwright, a skilled 6-10 forward that scored 22 points on Thursday against Wichita State, out of his game by getting him in early foul trouble. He fouled out with 1:05 to play after scoring eight points on 1-for-4 shooting to go with three rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes of action.
"Thank God we have Trevon Bluiett, who is a tremendous player," Myles Davis said. "We told Tre before the game that this was going to be a great matchup for him, and Tre takes on challenges every day. Boatwright was coming off a really good game, so he had to go at Boatwright because we knew Boatwright was going to come at him. Trevon was more aggressive, drew some fouls on him, got him in foul trouble, and knocked him off his rhythm a little bit."
Bluiett led the Musketeers in scoring for the fifth straight game with 16 points on 3-of-7 shooting.
Edmond Sumner added 13 points, and went 6-for-9 at the free-throw line. Myles Davis and James Farr both had 12 points to round out the Xavier scorers in double figures.
Xavier will take on former conference rival Dayton at 4:30 pm on Sunday in the finals of the Advocare Invitational.