RaShid Gaston didn't transfer from Norfolk State to Xavier and then work his tail off while sitting out for a year only to watch his new high-major program run through a successful season and make the NCAA tournament. His expectation was to be a significant contributor to that successful run with a big-time team. However, through the Musketeers' first eight games, it was unclear what direction his final season of NCAA eligibility was headed.
After a handful of uninspiring games, including a few 1-for-5 shooting performances in the Clemson game and the second game against Northern Iowa, Gaston played a season-low 12 minutes against North Dakota State, finishing with nine points (4-8 FG) and five rebounds.
He came back out fired up for the Musketeers' first true road game against No. 9 Baylor the following Saturday and put in a strong effort on the glass - eight rebounds in 18 minutes - but he struggled mightily to finish shots around the rim against the Bears' length and athleticism, going 1-for-4 from the field and 1-for-4 from the free throw line with three points.
That game made Xavier's lack of an offensive threat in the frontcourt look like a glaring weakness.
"Obviously I know I need to finish around the rim," Gaston said. "There was a lot of layups against that Baylor team that I should have made. My teammates and coaches are constantly challenging me to finish better but they're also keeping me confident."
Gaston wasn't discouraged. In fact, the loss at Baylor and his personal struggles only strengthened his resolve to play better. After all, going on big road trips to hostile environments to face potential NBA talents is why he came to Xavier in the first place.
"It's obviously why I came here," Gaston said. "It's exactly what I wanted to put myself into. Those road trips were amazing. Just the experience, the difference in levels of travel and play and everything else. I'm really enjoying myself so far."
He responded with his best performance of the season in the loss at Colorado, finishing with 14 points and 11 boards in 25 minutes on 7-of-8 shooting. Even though the Musketeers lost, Gaston's progression from a guy that couldn't finish a layup underneath the rim to XU's most efficient offensive weapon in one game was a positive sign.
Xavier ended its two-game losing streak with a 77-69 win over Utah at the Cintas Center on Saturday evening. Gaston powered the Musketeers with 11 points and 14 rebounds while going 5-of-8 from the field.
Xavier had 13 offensive rebounds compared to nine for Utah, and the Musketeers outscored the Utes 18-10 in second chance points. The discrepancy on the offensive glass was the biggest separator between the two teams. Most of that was thanks to Gaston's effort as he hauled in eight of the Musketeers' 13 offensive boards.
"If you're an elite offensive rebounder, you generally get one every five and a half or six minutes that you play," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "I mean, RaShid got one every three and a half minutes today. He was incredible on the glass."
Gaston's rebounding numbers have been solid enough since the beginning of the season and he was touted as a player who would help XU control the glass since he arrived on campus last year, so his dominance on the boards is not a huge revelation. However, when combined with the improved ability to finish inside that he's shown the last two games, it presents the possibility that he can will the Musketeers through tough stretches by providing consistent production in the post the same way that James Farr did at times for last year's team.
"It was more just me getting comfortable and getting settled into the system," Gaston said. "I hadn't played basketball in a year so just trying to find my flow in the game and everything… it's been slower than I planned but gradually it's coming along. I'm trying to enjoy the process."
Mack agreed: "I think he's gained a little confidence. We're working with those bigs every single day. I do think RaShid is starting to figure it out a little bit. You can't just barrel over guys, like how he picked up the charge in the second half. The best post move that you can make at any level is no post move needed. Just get deep post position. Catch the ball under the basket they're going to foul you or you're going to score. He's a tough kid. I'm really surprised he didn't play well at the beginning of the year."
Gaston looked like a completely different offensive player on Saturday against Utah compared to the one that struggled to score two games earlier at Baylor. He finished with dunks, made a nifty baseline move into a left-handed hook shot, and called for the ball sternly when he had position in the post.
"We have two other terrific post players, so I wouldn't say I'm our go-to guy, but I'm just trying to be really aggressive when I'm on the block," Gaston said. "I'm very confident in my scoring abilities, so whenever I feel I have a good post matchup I'm going to try and score."
In addition to Gaston's play and the advantage gained on the glass Saturday, XU's opportunistic ways in transition were another deciding factor in the win. The Musketeers forced 14 turnovers and converted those opportunities into 19 points. On the other end of the court, they only had eight miscues which led to eight points for Utah. The defensive effort wasn't perfect, but it was really good more often than it was subpar.
Xavier led by as many as 15 in the first half and held a 40-29 advantage at halftime thanks to 14 early points from Macura and nine points and 10 boards from Gaston. The Musketeers made 5-of-11 attempts from 3-point range and only turned the ball over three times in the first 20 minutes.
Utah went on an 11-4 run to start the second half, trimming the Musketeers' lead to four. Quentin Goodin answered with a floater and then assisted Kaiser Gates on a 3-pointer to push it back to nine. The Utes had the deficit down to four again a few minutes later, but Macura responded with a three that time.
Xavier's lead fluctuated between five to 11 the rest of the game.
Macura finished with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-7 from distance. Trevon Bluiett also added 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but 14 of his came in the second half, including 10 in the final three-plus minutes when Xavier was trying to maintain a single-digit margin. The Musketeers were 8-of-17 (47.1%) from deep as a team.
Another positive sign in the victory was XU's free throw shooting. After a rocky 5-for-11 start at the charity stripe, the Musketeers closed the game by sinking 10-of-10 from the line in the final minute, a welcomed sight for social media posters all across Xavier Nation.
Saturday's win was one Xavier needed and Gaston's play was a major bright spot. Now, the question for the Musketeers is how much of his emergence over the last two games was him raising his level of play versus how much of it was related to facing better matchups against opposing big men that weren't as long or athletic?
"I think he's raised his level of play because we've played two Pac 12 teams now, both of which really pride themselves on rebounding," Mack said. "He's been more of who I thought he'd be over the last couple of games than he was over the first several games."
The answer is probably a bit of both, but either way, Saturday was a big step forward for Gaston and Xavier's frontcourt.