After losing four spots in Monday's AP poll following a three-point win over Lehigh on Friday, Xavier left no doubt in Monday night's 86-53 win over Buffalo at the Cintas Center.
JP Macura led the Musketeers with 18 points while shooting a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line. The game was a choppy one, void of excitement with 38 player fouls being called on Buffalo and Xavier's lead never dipping below 15 points after the five-minute mark of the first half.
The play of freshman big man Tyrique Jones was the story of the game for Xavier.
Jones finished with six points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks, but his impact felt much bigger than that as he played 21 minutes, more than XU's two other post players, RaShid Gaston (15 mins.) and Sean O'Mara (16 mins.).
"Tyrique has great timing," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "He has a college level physique already, and he can affect things around the basket. Some of his blocks where he comes out of nowhere, you'd think he's 6-10, or 6-11. He has a unique timing. And his skillset just continues to get better."
Mack continued: "I told Coach Mike (Pegues) during shootaround, 'Man, Tyrique is really coming along with his right hand and left hand. When he first got here, he was not very confident in what he was doing. He still has a long ways to go but tonight he gives a little shimmy-shake and goes over his right shoulder with a left-hand hook. He's doing some impressive things and I'm just so thankful that he's eligible. He really elevates our team around the basket."
Jones' game is extremely rough around the edges. He struggles to grab the ball at times, both on the glass and when his teammates pass to him. He doesn't have much in the way of offensive skills and he struggles mightily at the free throw line. However, he brings energy and an edge to the Musketeers that they aren't getting from anyone else on the roster right now.
His desire to rebound is unrivaled. He wants every single ball. At one point in the second half, he ripped a board away from teammate Trevon Bluiett following a Buffalo free throw. He also never gives up on a play, knocking the ball away from Buffalo players multiple times to keep an otherwise sure rebound in play for himself and his teammates.
"After the first game, I was kind of down on myself because I only had one rebound," Jones said. "I went into this game thinking every rebound was going to be mine tonight. When I got in the game, I just wanted the ball so I went after it."
Jones' big shot rejection against Buffalo's Davonta Jordan led to a runout for Edmond Sumner, extending Xavier's lead to 19-5 and forcing Buffalo coach Nate Oats to call a timeout with 12:43 left in the first half.
Jones not only showed off his athleticism on defense with two highlight reel blocks, but he also showed his understanding of the Musketeers' system by being in position to slide over and take two charges during the game.
"I mean, like, wow," Mack said. "For a freshman… number one, the ability to see the play developing so he can slide over outside of the arc and take the charge. And then the toughness to do it… some of our other bigs and perimeter guys have to start taking some notes from a freshman when it comes to that because outside of Tyrique I don't see us blocking shots around the basket, so we need to protect the rim anyway we can. Certainly, you protect it when you take charges."
Freshman guard Quentin Goodin also looked much improved in his second real game as a Musketeer. He was much more aggressive in looking to drive after Mack said he was "playing scared" following the Lehigh game and finished with 11 points on 3-of-3 shooting (1-1 3PT, 4-8 FT) while dishing out four assists with two turnovers in 24 minutes of action.
"I was called in for a meeting with (Coach Mack) and Coach Steele," Goodin said. "That's all they really talked about. They were like, 'Are you scared?' I was like, 'No, I'm not really scared, I was just hesitant.' So today I played loose and just had some fun with it and it worked out. I didn't really think about anything. I was just playing to my instincts and playing the way they recruited me."
Xavier held a 44-25 halftime advantage after Buffalo committed 23 fouls in the first 20 minutes of action. Sumner led the Musketeers in the first half with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including a deep three at the end of the shot clock.
Xavier's defensive effort was a huge point of emphasis for Mack and his staff after allowing Lehigh to score 81 points on 50 percent shooting. The Musketeers showed rapid improvement on that end of the floor as they held Buffalo to just 30.6 percent shooting from the floor, including 29.2 percent in the first half.
"We felt like Buffalo coming into the game was a head down, drive it into the lane type team that would either draw fouls or drive and kick and we really wanted to take that away," Mack said. "They have a lot of scenarios where one offensive player just sort of clips another, almost like you'd see in football where it's not a pick but it's sort of just a brush. I thought our guys had great attention to detail and didn't give Buffalo any type of opportunity to drive it downhill. And because of that, they mostly stayed on the perimeter and we'll take that."
After getting just seven points from his bench against Lehigh, Mack also saw a huge improvement in that regard, with the reserves providing a 31-point lift against the Bulls.
Buffalo's 38 fouls were the most by an XU opponent since George Washington committed 41 on Feb. 16, 1998. Xavier was whistled for 21 fouls, which led to a 28-13 advantage at the free throw line for the Musketeers.
"You worry as a coach that when there are a lot of whistles on one end that it will just be reciprocated at the other," Mack said. "I thought Buffalo was fouling and I didn't think they adjusted, and I thought our guys, to their credit, kept Buffalo out of the bonus a lot longer than they did against Lehigh."
It was a confidence-building experience for not only Jones but also senior post player RaShid Gaston with XU going up against a subpar Buffalo frontcourt. They outscored the Bulls' big men 40-8 in the paint.
After O'Mara picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the second half, the Musketeers began working the ball into Gaston. He scored eight of his nine points in the second half with the highlight coming on a strong mid-line hook after he buried his man deep in the post. He finished the game 3-of-4 from the field and 3-of-4 from the free throw line with seven boards. It was a positive sign from a player that XU needs to play better following two uninspiring performances against Ferris State and Lehigh where he was a non-factor.
"It was great to see RaShid play the way he did," Mack said. "I thought he played really aggressive. He rebounded the ball, he ripped a couple out of traffic, he scored around the basket with his left hand and right hand. Those guys aren't Wilt Chamberlain by any means but we need them to score points and we need them to draw fouls."
O'Mara posted four points, three rebounds, and two assists, but was just 1-of-5 from the field and played only 16 minutes due to foul trouble and the game being out of hand. Him playing fewer minutes allowed Jones to step in and get a bigger opportunity after only playing eight minutes against Lehigh, and he took full advantage.
Jones' game is far from a finished product and his performance wasn't perfect on Monday night, but the freshman has clearly figured out how to carve out a role on a team that's been looking for improved post play.