Trevon Bluiett finished with a career-high 24 points, and Myles Davis added 14 points and seven assists with only one turnover in Xavier's 84-64 win over DePaul, but it was freshman forward Kaiser Gates who stole the show Tuesday night at the Cintas Center.
Gates finished with a career-high 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range. He added four rebounds and a blocked shot in 16 minutes, while also impressing with his versatility on defense and his overall basketball IQ.
"I realize I'm just part of something bigger," Gates said. "We're a great team - top 10 in the country - and I just know I have to accept my role and build on it from there."
"It always feels good to get out there and get rolling, for sure."
The first half went back-and-forth between the two teams until the final stretch of play following the last media timeout. The Musketeers closed the half on a 10-3 run to take a 41-31 lead at halftime.
They then opened up the second half on a 7-0 run over the first minute and a half to put the game away.
DePaul's Aaron Simpson hit a three to stop the skid and make the score 48-34, but the Blue Demons never drew closer than 14 points. A three from Gates with 11:10 to play pushed the Musketeers' lead over 20, 62-40.
"I was really pleased with how hard our team played," Mack said. "As long as we're playing at a high level on the defensive end, we're communicating, we're locked into the scouting report and we're getting after it; we'll get enough points in transition and get teams on the move, and that's exactly what we did tonight."
"We played a heck of a lot harder tonight than we did against St. John's, and that was a very positive step in the right direction."
Xavier's ball movement was excellent, and the entire team did a better job of taking care of the basketball compared to the last three games played without Sumner. The Musketeers came in averaging 14.3 assists and 17.0 turnovers during that stretch, but finished with 21 assists on 26 shots and only 10 turnovers against DePaul.
"The last couple of games, we've been kind of higher on our turnovers," Bluiett said. "We made a point of emphasis in practice to focus on that. It's just being more careful, being more locked in. Sometimes there's just silly mistakes, or guys pass without looking first, but we're working on it."
Bluiett scored 19 of his 24 points in the first half, which marked the most points a Xavier player had scored in one half this season. Davis had 10 of his 14 before intermission.
In the second half, Gates and sophomore wing JP Macura led the way. Gates scored eight of his 11 after the break, and Macura poured in 11 of his 13, as the Musketeers' lead swelled to 26 with 7:03 to play.
"I think that's what sets us apart is that we have seven to nine guys on the team that could easily go out there and get 20 points if they wanted to and were on a team by themselves," Bluiett said. "We play together. We know that there's not one person that's bigger than the program, and if we want to get where we want to go then we have to play together."
For Bluiett, the game meant that he broke out of a three-game shooting slump. For Macura, it was a chance to get back in the flow on offense after having averaged just 6.0 points over the Musketeers' last six games. For the team, it was a business-like win without Sumner.
But for Gates, a talented freshman battling for playing time in a crowded position group, it was another opportunity of which he took full advantage.
"I feel like the more I'm out there, the more comfortable I get, the less I feel like I have to force issues and force the offensive play." Gates said. "I feel like playing more minutes helps take that pressure off."
Davis found him on an assist for the Musketeers' final basket of the first half to get him going, and then Gates got in a rhythm when he re-entered in the second half. He nailed two 3-pointers in a matter of a minute and a half starting at the 12:46 mark, and sandwiched an impressive and-one finish in between, sparking a 12-1 XU run by scoring the first eight himself.
"I've said it from the beginning, even when he wasn't playing a whole lot, he may be the second best shooter on our team," Mack said. "We may have to put those guys out there in a horse contest and see if he's not the best shooter. He's doing it in limited opportunities and not with a whole lot of confidence as a freshman."
"But he's starting to gain it, and you can see it. He's getting better and better."
Even more impressive than his offensive outburst was the impact he made on defense and on the glass. Though lacking strength, he was more aggressive and physical when trying to mix it up on the boards. And on defense, he showed off his versatility by seamlessly switching between guarding a forward (his man), a center, and one of the Big East's best point guards in Billy Garrett - sometimes on the same possession.
"He can move his feet an elite level, especially when we play him at the four," Mack said. "We can actually play him at the three and he can still guard, and we have the ability, because of his versatility, to switch ball screens."
Expectations are that Sumner might be ready for Saturday's game against Marquette. If that's true, it will be a great boost for this team.
However, outside of contributing to a 31-point loss at Villanova on a day where the Musketeers weren't going to beat the Wildcats, Sumner's absence hasn't really hurt Mack's men.
They may have even gotten better.
Without this four-game stretch providing some extra playing time for Gates to prove himself to his coaches and teammates, he may have still just been an intriguing young player on the bench with a jump shot, averaging single-digit minutes.
Instead, Xavier now appears to be a deeper team that can rely on Gates if need be, use him as a versatile piece in different defensive alignments, or potentially even look to him for a spark off the bench.