Xavier's trip to Orlando started off worrisome with the Musketeers sneaking out an overtime win over a mediocre Missouri team on Thursday afternoon. However, after beating Clemson (83-77) Friday afternoon and Northern Iowa (67-59) Sunday night to capture the Tire Pros Invitational championship, it would appear that Chris Mack has his team ahead of schedule in terms of its development.
A look at the boxscores from all three games over the weekend reveals that Xavier never really played all that well. Or, at least, not well in the way that public perception typically judges teams, referring to aesthetically pleasing basketball with good ball movement and made shots. The Musketeers won by being grittier, tougher, and more talented than their opponents.
Shots were definitely missed. And a few too many turnovers were made. X hit just 2-of-22 (9.1%) from deep against Missouri and 5-of-22 (22.7%) against Northern Iowa. All-tournament team selection JP Macura hit 6-of-11 himself against Clemson to put the Musketeers at a solid 9-for-21 (42.9%) clip in that game, but it wasn't a great overall shooting performance by XU. Despite averaging 18.0 points per game and earning Most Valuable Player honors, Trevon Bluiett particularly struggled from 3-point range, hitting just 4-of-23 attempts (17.4%) over the three games in Orlando. Point guard Edmond Sumner was the biggest culprit with the turnovers. He had 10 assists and 13 turnovers in the three-game tournament, with a few of those turnovers coming in end of game scenarios when X was trying to close out wins.
There are also some chemistry issues on offense that go beyond missed shots and miscues that the Musketeers are still working through. Sumner is learning to be the best player on the court at all times while also handling his team as a point guard, Bluiett is taking on an even more increased load from last year, Macura is transitioning from Sixth-man to go-to scoring option while playing alongside two other elite offensive players, Malcolm Bernard is figuring out his role while learning multiple positions in a new system after being the best player on his team at Florida A&M, and the big men are all fighting to solidify their spot in the rotation after James Farr and Jalen Reynolds graduated.
All of those things have led to Xavier being a little bit impatient and choppy at times on offense.
At their best last year, the Musketeers moved the ball quickly and had the defense chasing it around. It typically created open looks and a momentum that everyone could feed off, which resulted in a snowball effect. Over the weekend, they mostly relied on their best players to take over and make shots. The big three of Bluiett, Sumner (15.3 ppg), and Macura (19.0 ppg) showed they were talented enough to get the job done even without the offense finding that coveted rhythm, which suggests the upside for this team is huge.
Xavier made an even more impressive statement with its play on the defensive end in Disney World.
Last year's team was Chris Mack's best defensive group by a long shot, finishing the year ranked 22 nationally in defensive efficiency. This year's team is ranked 25 through five games. Sunday night's championship performance was particularly impressive as the Musketeers held Northern Iowa to 37.5 percent shooting and .819 points per possession, while perfectly executing their gameplan.
The key was a commitment to guarding the ball and limiting dribble penetration for extended possessions so that they wouldn't have to help off of numerous shooters in UNI's patient offense. For the most part, the Musketeers did exactly that. The Panthers still hit 10-of-24 attempts from beyond the arc, but created virtually no other good looks against XU's tight man-to-man.
Team 95 might not have a Remy Abell-caliber shutdown defender and it might not be as long around the rim without Farr and Reynolds, but the current lineup is longer on the perimeter with 6-foot-6 Edmond Sumner, 6-foot-5 JP Macura, and 6-foot-6 Malcolm Bernard.
Just as important, this group has clearly bought in on the defensive end in the same way last years did.
Macura and Bluiett have both made more progress in their defensive development from last year, and Bernard is getting more comfortable with the system as each day passes. Add in the potential of freshmen Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin as defenders, plus the addition of a long and versatile defender in Kaiser Gates within "the next week or two," according to Mack, and this team should only get better defensively as the season continues.
From a metrics standpoint, the Musketeers avoided a bad loss to Missouri and picked up a pair of solid wins over Clemson and Northern Iowa by winning the Tire Pros Invitational. Clemson should have a winning conference record and finish in the top half of the ACC, while UNI should contend with Wichita State to win the Missouri Valley Conference. In terms of resume, X bought itself some wiggle room with two wins on a neutral site over potential top 100 teams. As fans saw last year, not needing the wiggle room during the non-conference portion of the schedule is how top seeds are earned in the NCAA tournament.
There is plenty for Xavier to clean up. Defending without fouling, two-minute offense with a lead, and 3-point shooting are all aspects that can and should be taken care of rather quickly. Some of the other matters like chemistry and getting Gates and Myles Davis back will take some time, but those obstacles were expected to cause bigger problems early on for the Musketeers. It was a great sign that they were able to tough their way through those issues.
Grinding out three wins this weekend put Xavier in great shape and ahead of schedule.