Following Saturday's win over Wake Forest, Xavier coach Chris Mack was blunt when talking about the struggles of sophomore forward Kaiser Gates, who had recently returned from injury.
"Kaiser's issue is between the ears," Mack said. "He has to know that he didn't have his leg amputated. You know, it's a scope. He has to hold his ground, he has to block out, he has to play harder and play with more energy, get some offensive rebounds. I thought he made a couple of good passes in transition, but we expect more out of Kaiser Gates."
If you're judging by the way Gates played on Tuesday night, it would seem Mack's message was well received.
Gates' performance in Xavier's 85-56 win over Eastern Washington was a bright spot for Xavier fans in an otherwise meaningless game. He scored a career-high 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. He also had three rebounds and played well on the defensive end.
"Overall, I'd say that's the best I've felt," Gates said.
The Musketeers fell behind 22-11 over the first nine minutes before going on a 35-8 run to end the half, a spurt that included six consecutive made 3-pointers. They led 46-30 at halftime and never took their foot off the gas defensively in the second half, outscoring the Eagles 39-26 after intermission.
Trevon Bluiett led five XU scorers in double figures with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-8 from 3-point range, to go with four rebounds, four steals, and two turnovers. Edmond Sumner added 14 points (5-7 FG, 2-3 3PT), nine assists, four rebounds, two steals, and no turnovers.
"We've got a long way to go to get better," Mack said. "I think our players recognize that. They told on themselves a little bit today. I thought they played so much harder defensively in the last eight or nine minutes of today's first half and that told me that we can squeeze more out of them. They can play a lot harder and they're going to need to as we face the competition we're about to face."
Gates was held out of the first few weeks of preseason practice in October with soreness in his left knee. After the condition didn't improve, Xavier's medical staff made the decision to perform a scope procedure to remove small particles of cartilage. Gates returned to practice the week after the Musketeers returned from the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando and then played in his first game on Nov. 26 against Northern Iowa.
Making it back to the court was just the beginning of a rough process for Gates as he's tried to carve out his role on this year's team over the last six games.
The biggest struggle since he returned has been his shooting. Entering Tuesday night's game he was just 4-for-21 (19%) from beyond the arc this season.
At the very least, the hope was that Gates would develop into a consistent spot-up threat and strong defender like he showed flashes of being in his limited role last season. And for this team specifically, adding his shooting back into the lineup was the most enticing part of his return considering XU's struggles from the outside.
That's what made his shooting performance against Eastern Washington so notable. It's a big deal for the Musketeers if he's able to get his shot back on track. Gates said he felt "a lot more loose" than he's been. He certainly looked more confident.
"For us to be good, we need our role players to step up and gain confidence," Sumner said. "For me to see Kaiser's out there making big shots is a good sign. We have to be deep for us to compete in the Big East. For our role players to step up and do their part is a good sign."
Gates didn't sit back and wait for his shot to return to form on its own. Within an hour of the Musketeers' last two home games, he could be heard from the press room shooting in the auxiliary gym.
"It gets frustrating but I know it will all come in time," Gates said. "I feel like (the workouts) have helped me get in a rhythm. Having my teammates like Ed, Tre, JP… all of them telling me to shoot the ball when I'm open has helped me build confidence too."
Aside from the shooting, the bigger long-term concern with Gates since he returned was his lack of mobility on the defensive end. He physically wasn't moving laterally with the same quickness he showed a season ago and, as a result, his play has been shaky at best on that end of the floor. If he's not able to be a big, versatile defender that can guard out on the perimeter, his value goes way down.
Mack said on Tuesday night that he was pleased with Gates' effort in areas other than his shooting, making specific mention of his mobility.
"I think that's the first thing you see is him making shots," Mack said. "Everybody gets excited, including our coaching staff and our team but what's equally exciting is I thought he moved his feet defensively like he did a year ago. He kept the ball in front of him versus a driving team, a team that played four guards the majority of the time. That's what we've come to expect of Kaiser on the perimeter."
He also noted that Gates' added bulk should help him improve as a post defender, which could be a hint that we may see more small-ball lineups with Gates playing center when Gaston leaves the game. XU still has to prove it can rebound and defend the post successfully with such a small personnel grouping on the court, of course, but the thought is incredibly enticing in terms of the offensive skill and defensive versatility that lineup could present.
Eastern Washington was clearly an inferior opponent and all of Gates' confidence and success on Tuesday night could have been the result of a favorable matchup. Even still, it was something worth watching during a game that was terribly boring. And if Gates is shaking some of the rust off and returning to form after missing so much practice time, it could be a major development for Team 95's upside.