Bob Stevens

Defense keeps XU undefeated heading into Crosstown Shootout

Xavier is a "better defensive team than we've been in a long time," according to head coach Chris Mack.

Over the next few days, the narrative heading into the Crosstown Shootout is sure to center around Xavier's "skilled offense" going up against Cincinnati's "tough defense." 

That's not necessarily wrong. Xavier is a more versatile and skilled offensive team, while Cincinnati relies on its highly-ranked defense, just like every year under Mick Cronin.

Make no mistake, though, the Musketeers are 9-0 this year because of their toughness and discipline on the defensive end. 

"We're a better defensive team than we've been in a long time," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Your offense is going to come and go. There are going to be some nights where you can't put the ball in the hole, but if you can hang your hat on the defensive end then you're going to be in every game you play. I think this team is hopefully starting to figure that out, and we still have tougher challenges ahead." 

Xavier showed just how relentless its defense can be Tuesday night in a 90-55 win over Wright State. The Musketeers limited the Raiders to 36.5 percent shooting for the game, and built a 49-21 lead in the first half by holding them to 0.58 points per possession on 28.1 percent shooting, including 2-of-14 from 3-point range. 

Wright State came in shooting 43.9 percent from the perimeter, which ranked 11th in the country. 

"Coming into the game we felt like we really had to take away Wright State's ability to shoot the three," Mack said. "We did that."

"Defensively we did a really good job whether we were in man or zone. I thought our communication was good and I thought we chased shooters. They went 5-for-27 from the 3-point line, and they had multiple kids that shoot 40-plus percent from three." 

Sophomore Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with a new career-high 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-8 from 3-point range. He also had 11 rebounds, two assists, and two turnovers in 24 minutes. 

"Tre is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and that's what we need," Junior guard Myles Davis said. "Tre's our best overall player. Not only is he scoring the ball well, but it's great to see him also get rebounds too. That makes us even more deadly." 

Both teams struggled to score for the first seven-plus minutes of the game. 

Wright State scored on a tough hook shot by Michael Karena with 15:18 to play in the first half, which drew the Raiders within two, 8-6. 

The Musketeers then locked down on defense for the next nine minutes, as they went on a 25-0 run that extended through the six-minute mark, pushing their lead out to 33-6. 

Wright State's Biggie Minnis broke the scoring drought with a free-throw at the 5:54 mark. 

Xavier jumpstarted its offense by getting to the free-throw line and grabbing 15 offensive rebounds in the first half. When the early shots didn't fall, the Musketeers moved the ball and penetrated, forcing the officials to call 17 fouls on Wright State before halftime. They outscored the Raiders 18-1 at the charity stripe. 

Once they got their offense rolling with freebies, the shots started falling from the outside. Davis and JP Macura each hit a pair of first half threes. 

Macura scored 10 of his 12 points before intermission. Davis finished with 13 points and five rebounds. 

"I don't know if we could have got to the foul line or played any better offensively in terms of what we wanted to do in the first half," Mack said. "We could have made some more shots, but…"

The game was over at halftime because Xavier's defense never gave the Raiders a chance to get started. They piled up stop after stop by staying disciplined and sticking to the game-plan against a team of shooters. 

"I think we really made it on the defensive end," Macura said of the Musketeers' big first half run. "The offense came, but we really played together on the defensive end, made the court tight, and made them take tough shots. I think we played well together."

More importantly, the Musketeers were able to defend so well without fouling. They committed just five fouls in the first half, and shot 22 free-throw attempts while only putting the Raiders at the line for four. 

Xavier opened up the second half by getting Jalen Reynolds involved. A set play freed him for an and-one on the first possession of the half to push the Musketeers' lead to 30. He scored again a few possessions later on a great post feed from Edmond Sumner, and finished the game with 10 points (4-10 FG), four rebounds, and two blocks in 15 minutes. 

Bluiett hit four 3-pointers in the first six minutes of the second half to help extend the lead even further, and then a step-back 3-pointer by Makinde London with 13:06 to play pushed it over 40, 75-33. 

A flurry of offense in the final three minutes helped get the Raiders into the 50s, but Xavier really didn't let up on its intensity at all on the defensive end while the regulars were still on the floor. 

"From an emotional standpoint, they played like pros," Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. "Played like adults playing basketball. They miss some shots, they just keep playing."

Xavier entered Tuesday night's game ranked 15th in the country in defensive efficiency, one spot behind Cincinnati according to KenPom.com. Last year's Sweet 16 team finished the season ranked 57th in the country, and started the season much worse than that. 

"We're a better defensive team - there's no doubt," Mack said. "The numbers bear it out. I think our kids take more pride in it. I think the zone has helped us a little bit so we have sort of what I like to call a curveball." 

There are a few reasons for the Musketeers' improvement on the defensive end, according to Mack. 

In addition to the obvious benefits of trading out Matt Stainbrook for more mobile big men, their personnel is better overall. They've upgraded their length and athleticism at the guard and center positions, and it's made a major difference. 

"We're longer," Mack said. "Dee was extremely solid on the defensive end, but he was smaller. Our 3-point field goal percentage defense, and I'm not going to put it all on Dee certainly, but Ed (Sumner) provides more length. So does Larry (Austin). I also think the fact that freshmen have grown into sophomores helps. I'm not ready to anoint this team in any way shape or form, but through nine games we are a better team than we've been in the past." 

Two of those sophomores in particular, Bluiett and Macura, were targets for opposing offenses last year, but that's no longer the case. Both have made major strides this year, and along with Davis' quicker feet, have solidified the Musketeers' defense on the wing, which was a weakness at times last season.

Macura said that just simply learning how hard you have to play on every possession can be the toughest part of transitioning to the college game. Many top scorers in high school basketball take defensive possessions off to stay out of foul trouble and conserve energy for the offensive end. 

"Staying in a stance for 30 seconds and playing for a whole possession is difficult right when you get here," he said. 

Finally, Xavier has been elite when it comes to limiting their opposition's second chances. Their defensive rebounding rate currently ranks fourth in the country. 

"I think we've gone out and done what we needed to do," Mack said. "Played hard, played unselfish, didn't change who we are, got to the foul line, out-rebounded our opponents by plus-20." 

"I will say that's all in the past now. You earn who you are every single night, and it starts in practice."

Saturday evening will be a battle between two hard-nosed defensive-minded teams. One just happens to score easier than the other. 


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