Those who were privy to Xavier's preseason practices knew it was coming.
It was only a matter of time before JP Macura blew up and announced himself to the outside world as a bonafide star, giving Xavier a true Big Three as opposed to a Dynamic Duo of Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner.
While Bluiett and Sumner garnered most of the preseason accolades, it was Macura who provided Team 95's first "wow" moment of the season as he exploded for 28 points to go with five assists and four rebounds in Xavier's 83-77 win over Clemson in the second round of the Tire Pros Invitational.
"His teammates really wanted to find him. He has that ability," Xavier coach Chris Mack said of Macura. "Every guy on the team’s got to know that when the shot doesn’t go in a couple times – it’s not shoot ‘til you get hot – if you’re hot the way he was it’s nice to know, I’m sure for him, he’s got unselfish teammates finding him, looking for him in transition, and we ran a few plays for him to get him open. He had a huge game in the first half and he made some big-time plays in the second half as well."
Macura put on a show in the first half, pouring in a career-high 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-6 from deep, with three rebounds, an assist, and two turnovers before intermission. He started hot, stayed hot, and then began tossing in heat checks from a few feet beyond the arc while covered. And he still found effort points with his hustle.
It was a very Macura-esque performance.
His big night started in the first minute when he answered Gabe DeVoe's opening bucket with a three at the other end to give X it's first lead, 3-2. He scored on a layup a few possessions later to push the Musketeers' lead to 7-4.
The Musketeers held Clemson without a point for over five minutes from the 16:05 mark to the 10:45 mark of the first half, making a 12-0 run during that time. That's when Macura really got going.
After Bluiett nailed a three to tie the game 10-10 with 15:52 to go, Macura followed it up with three consecutive triples for XU to take a 19-10 lead.
“I started the season off not shooting the ball very well and my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball," Macura said. "I had all the confidence in the world when I was shooting and we just had a great team victory today.”
Macura had another outburst in the final minutes of the half. He scored on a stick-back with 4:34 to go, and then went coast-to-coast after grabbing a defensive rebound on the ensuing possession, crashing into the basket support after he finished his drive. On the very next possession, he nailed a quick-trigger three from the left side directly in front of Clemson's bench.
He scored his final points of the half on an out-of-rhythm corner jumper with his toes on the 3-point line.
Bluiett sunk a three with 1:28 left to give the Musketeers their biggest lead of the game, 41-29. He also held Clemson's top player, Jaron Blossomgame, to just two points in the first half. Blossomgame finished with 13.
Blossomgame finished the game with 13.
After Macura carried X in the first half, Bluiett did the heavy lifting in the second half, scoring 13 of his 21 points after intermission. He was 6-of-15 from the field and 2-of-7 from three, plus he grabbed five boards and dished out four assists with two turnovers.
While Bluiett and Macura were on top of their game, Sumner was up and down for the second straight day. Similar to Thursday, he struggled more as a decision-maker and point guard in crunch time than as a scorer. He finished with 11 points, six rebounds, six assists, two blocks, two steals and five turnovers. He had a few silly miscues late in the game and also missed a pair of free throws in the final minute.
Xavier's big men were in foul trouble throughout the game, but overall they combined for a solid performance, particularly on defense. O"Mara had 10 points (4-4 FG, 2-2 FT) and two boards in 12 minutes, Gaston had two points (1-5 FG) and six rebounds in 15 minutes and Jones posted two points (1-1 FG) and two rebounds in 12 minutes.
Xavier hit a mid-second half lull near the eight-minute mark. Clemson went on a quick 6-0 run to cut the Musketeers' lead to 63-58, forcing Mack to call a timeout. The Tigers scored again out of the break to draw within one possession, 63-60, but Xavier responded with a 6-0 run, fueled by a pair of Malcolm Bernard drives.
"Coach Mack tells us all the time ‘Be confident and make strong moves’ so I saw a mismatch and just took advantage of it and tried to make a play," Bernard said.
Bernard finished the game with nine points (4-6 FG, 1-2 3PT, 0-1 FT) and seven rebounds while playing solid defense.
"I feel a lot differently than I felt when I sat at this table 24 hours ago," Mack said. "Our team played much better today against a very good Clemson team. It was a battle. They gave us a punch with about seven minutes to go and I thought our guys responded again much better than we did against Missouri to close out the game."
While the Musketeers built a cushion, they still struggled a bit to fully put the game away despite having every opportunity to do so. A technical foul by RaShid Gaston, two XU turnovers in the final two minutes, and four missed free throws combined with four Xavier fouls committed in the final 42 seconds were just some of the reasons that the Tigers were able to hang around until the final buzzer. They never had a chance to tie the game after the five-minute mark, but, still, XU could have made the win a lot easier on itself.
After making just 2-of-22 attempts from the perimeter against Missouri, the Musketeers hit 9-of-21 Friday against Clemson. Macura's 6-for-11 performance was a big reason for that.
It's not just the scoring, though. Macura has improved again on defense, he makes smart plays when it's winning time, and he exudes toughness on the court - he's talented enough to be a go-to player for most teams in the country.
His scoring outburst against Clemson showed that.
Over the first four games of the year, it'd be hard to argue that Macura hasn't been Xavier's most valuable player. Fans watching closely were aware of that. On Friday afternoon, he made sure the rest of the college basketball world was paying attention. Get ready for a big junior season out of No. 55.