After trudging through a 78-66 victory over Northern Kentucky a little less than two weeks ago, James Farr and Myles Davis sat behind microphones, wearing disgusted looks on their faces.
The Musketeers had just entered the AP's Top 25 poll and were coming off a big win at Michigan, but then played an uninspired and sloppy first half against NKU. They ended up pulling away from the Norse with better effort and talent late in the second half, but the veteran players, Farr and Davis, vowed after the game to use the close call as a learning experience.
At least for Saturday night, it looked like they learned their lesson.
Xavier hosted Western Kentucky under circumstances similar to the situation it found itself in against NKU. The team came in fresh off three straight wins at the Advocare Invitational, including a dominant performance against rival Dayton, and boasting the highest ranking the program has seen since the 2011-12 season at No. 12 in the latest AP poll.
Instead of succumbing to the half-assed defense and sloppy play that comes with a trap game, Xavier looked sharp from the opening tip while cruising to a 95-64 win over the Hilltoppers.
Sophomore Trevon Bluiett led the Musketeers with an efficient career-high tying 21-points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range. He also had 10 rebounds in 24 minutes of action. James Farr added a career-high 18 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
In addition to the wakeup call against NKU, Xavier coach Chris Mack said his coaching staff pointed out Miami (FL) to their players as as an example of a team that recently took a tough home loss to an unranked opponent after winning an exempt event.
"They go to Puerto Rico and blitz three really good teams," Mack said. "They beat Mississippi State, they beat 16-ranked Utah at the time by 24, and they crushed Butler. And then they come home and lose to Northeastern. Northeastern is a good program, but it's not the level of those three teams they saw in Puerto Rico."
"No one's immune. If you don't bring it on game night, you'll lose."
The Hilltoppers didn't have an answer for Bluiett as he notched his second double-double of the season. He now ranks eighth in the Big East in scoring with an average of 15.1 points per game, and seventh in rebounding with 7.8 boards.
"We knew we kind of dropped the ball a little bit and let our foot off the gas pedal against NKU," Bluiett said. "We just knew that if we play those type of games, they might sneak up and get one. And we don't want to be one of those teams that win a tournament, get ranked, and then come into a game and drop one, so we kind of made a point of emphasis to stay away from that (tonight)."
The Musketeers featured Farr as an offensive weapon more often than usual against the Hilltoppers. In addition to Jalen Reynolds only playing 16 minutes due to foul trouble, Farr has clearly earned the trust of his teammates with his ability to finish in the post over the first seven games of the season. He was 7-of-11 from the field and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line.
Farr's free-throw shooting has been an overlooked aspect of his all-around improvements this season. Last year he shot 46.9 percent from the charity stripe (15-32 FT), but this year's he's hitting at an 80 percent clip (16-20).
Xavier didn't blow the Hilltoppers away from the start.
And in some ways that made the performance more impressive.
Western Kentucky put up a legitimate fight, and Xavier responded with relentlessness and superior skill.
Davis buried his first 3-pointer of the game near the 10 minute mark of the first half and extended the Musketeers lead to 22-14. It also sparked a 15-5 XU run over the next four minutes that put the home team in control for good.
The Musketeers were fully locked into the game-plan. The Hilltoppers' shooters were firing early and often, but Xavier's defenders were there on the catch, limiting Western to 3-of-13 (23.1%) from 3-point range in the first half.
"I thought coming into the game, (Western Kentucky) was probably the best 3-point shooting team that we had faced so far," Mack said. "We felt like they had three guys that were knockdown shooters. That can change a game in a hurry. We really concentrated on trying to make sure that the transition three wasn't available, that we were hard on our closeouts, and we made those guys deck the ball."
At halftime, the Musketeers led 44-30.
They didn't let up from there. They used crisp ball movement to score 51 points after intermission while shooting 64.3 percent from the field, including 5-of-8 from long range. They racked up 13 assists on 18 field goals.
When the Hilltoppers showed signs of life, such as their 7-2 run midway through the second half when they turned Larry Austin over on consecutive possessions with their press, Xavier always had an answer.
Davis's third three with 9:28 on the clock put an end to that run by Western, and launched a 15-2 XU onslaught that put the game away. Davis finished with 16 points, six assists and one turnover, and connected on 3-of-5 from long distance.
Bluiett's transition three off an assist from Sumner with 8:25 to play pushed the lead to 20, 75-55.
A free-throw by Sean O'Mara with less than two minutes to play made it a 30-point game, 91-61.
Xavier was the tougher team throughout, especially with its discipline on defense and its effort on the glass.
The Musketeers contained Western Kentucky standout big man Justin Johnson, an extremely physical player and a talented offensive rebounder. He had a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds, including three offensive boards, but finished 5-of-14 (35.7%) from the field on mostly shots around the rim.
"We talked and talked about Justin Johnson, and trying to keep him off the offensive glass," Mack said. "To me, he's the JJ Watt of college basketball. His motor is really impressive. If he were a couple inches taller, it would be scarier than it already is."
"I felt we earned our victory tonight because despite us missing most of our players on Wednesday, we came back and I was really nervous that our practice on Thursday was going to be poor based on guys being out for a couple of days with the flu, but their energy-level was great, their attention to detail was really good. We had a really sharp practice, and we followed it up with the same effort yesterday."
The Musketeers' ability to focus will be tested again on Tuesday night when they take on Wright State with the Crosstown Shootout looming on Saturday.