Xavier couldn't possibly answer all of the questions from critics with a home win over Providence. But the Musketeers tried like hell on Wednesday night in an 82-56 win.
Chris Mack saw good signs from all of his players. Everyone from Trevon Bluiett to Tyrique Jones made a positive impact on the game and the team took a step forward in nearly every facet that was questioned through their 10-2 start in non-conference play.
"I thought for the first time really all season long our team put together as complete of a game as we played all year," Mack said. "I don't think Providence played their best, but our guys have had the tendency to take the foot off the gas pedal. It's been frustrating at times and we certainly haven't arrived, but I thought tonight for one of the very first times when I talked about that in one of the huddles, I thought there was a difference in the way our team played on the defensive end, kept sharing the ball on the offensive end, and we didn't just sort of end the game. We didn't just trade baskets. I thought our team kept competing."
The 26-point spread marked Xavier's largest margin of victory ever in a Big East conference game. Their previous high was a 21-point win over DePaul last season.
Here are a few of the things that went right for Xavier:
- The Musketeers locked in defensively from the start, corralling Kyron Cartwright enough and completely shutting down Rodney Bullock. XU held Providence to 10-for-27 (37%) shooting from the field and an average of .71 points per possession in the first half and 19-for-49 (38.8%) from the field and .85 points per possession for the game.
- Kaiser Gates looked great again defensively. He's moving better and with more confidence. He switched onto Cartwright multiple times with no problem and did a great job against Bullock when he was guarding him. He also went 1-of-2 from three and tried to work in a really nice post fade move (but traveled) on offense.
- X destroyed Providence's 2-3 matchup zone with perfect execution while rotating its wings through the middle at the high post. The Friars likely started out in the zone due to seeing the Musketeers struggle with various zones through the first 12 games of the season.
- The three stars - Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and Edmond Sumner - were really good and played with the type of chemistry and flow that they have been lacking for most of the year. All three were really aggressive when driving the ball and they were constantly looking to make plays for their teammates. As a result, the team also shot the ball better from the perimeter (8-20, 40%). Bluiett was 3-for-8 from deep, Macura was 2-for-3, and Sumner was 1-for-1. The team had 22 assists on 32 field goals.
- Xavier's post players destroyed the Friars' frontcourt. RaShid Gaston, Sean O'Mara, and Tyrique Jones combined for 22 points and 11 rebounds while going 10-for-10 from the field. Gaston was really solid once again, but it was especially important for O'Mara to gain some confidence. He made a few nice moves in the post and was finally able to finish off his shots. Xavier outscored Providence 42-24 in points in the paint and 13-5 in second-chance points.
- Malcolm Bernard and Quentin Goodin both looked more comfortable, more confident, and were excellent on defense.
It was about as good of a performance as anyone could have asked for out of the Musketeers to open conference play. They jumped out to a 26-11 lead with seven minutes to play in the first half when Macura scored to cap an 18-4 run. At halftime, they led 37-25.
There was a sequence in the first half that epitomized the effort and chemistry with which Xavier played on Wednesday night. It came with 9:30 to play when Bluiett got a steal on the defensive end and then threw ahead to Macura in transition. In one motion as he was catching the ball, Macura quickly flipped a lob pass up over Providence's Jalen Lindsey to a sprinting Malcolm Bernard, who flushed it for a two-handed oop.
"When we play well on the defensive end that translates offensively and on top of that we're sharing the ball," Bluiett said. "I think JP could have tried to finish that but just the fact that he was selfless and wanted to throw that up, I think we recognize that we have a lot of team chemistry and I think when it shows we kind of hype ourselves up and that gets us going as well."
He continued: "It's a lot of fun, especially when all of our guys are clicking and everybody is having one of their good games, nobody is really off. We kind of put everything beside us and just play to win, we play for each other. I think when we do that the results will come out better and it's a lot more fun to play with each other."
Bluiett scored 13 of his game-high 22 points in the first half. He seemed to take the one-on-one matchup with Bullock personally. Bullock has had a strong start to his season, but Bluiett was by far the best player on the floor Wednesday. He not only scored well, he had a game-high nine rebounds, played really well on the defensive end, and was as aggressive in looking to drive and make plays as we've ever seen him in a Xavier uniform.
"It says a lot about his personal growth," Mack said about Bluiett. "Because he wasn't a great defender early in his career and he's had some really good nights against some all-conference types of players… Bullock one, (Clemson's Jaron) Blossomgame another."
The lead quickly ballooned to 24 by the 15:00 mark in the second half, 55-31, as the Musketeers went on a 16-4 run. O'Mara pushed the lead to its largest point at 30, 82-52, on a bucket with 3:42 to play.
With just over two minutes left, there was a moment that perfectly summed up how complete of an effort XU turned in against the Friars. After a missed jumper, Bernard, Gates, and Jones all ended up diving on the floor while scrapping for a loose offensive rebound. The Musketeers were up 30 at that point and Tim Stainbrook was already in the game. Mack took a step forward onto the court and applauded the effort of his guys as his players peeled themselves off the floor following that play.
The Musketeers' gameplan was perfect defensively. They helped off of Isaiah Jackson and kept their defense super tight to crowd the lane for Providence's real threats like Bullock and Emmitt Holt. Jackson led the way with 17 points as a result, but the tradeoff was well worth it as Bullock and Holt combined for six points on 3-of-15 shooting. They came into the game as the Friars' top scorers, averaging a combined 33.7 points per game.
"We just know (Bullock's) sweet spots," Bluiett said. "He likes to play out of that long post and we just tried to get him off of that a little bit and make him uncomfortable when he did have the ball. I think those are kinds of the things we did that got him off of his game."
Offensively, the Musketeers had their "it" factor back. It's hard to explain exactly what "it" is, but it's easily recognizable when you see it. Perhaps Providence coach Ed Cooley summed it up best after the game.
"They have a comfort level playing together. I love their balance. I like their swag," he said. "They should be ranked where they're ranked, maybe higher."
Ultimately, this game means very little. Providence doesn't look poised to have a lot of success in the conference. However, for Xavier fans, this performance should rightfully provide reasons to dream about this team's upside, or, at the very least, ease some concerns about the Musketeers going forward.