Xavier had its best offensive effort of the season Saturday afternoon as the Musketeers took down St. John's 97-82 at the Cintas Center.
The Musketeers led by 15 at halftime, 54-39, and pushed that lead to 26 midway through the second half. They shot 58.6 percent from the field, including 47.6 percent from deep, while gaining a 23-10 advantage in points off turnovers, 16-12 in second chance points, and 13-7 in fast break points.
After watching the game, there were three main takeaways from the Musketeers' performance:
The offense is flowing
Trying to describe Xavier's offensive flow when it's at its best and what separates that from when the Musketeers are just playing average on the offensive end is not an easy task. It's one of those, "I know it when I see it," kind of things.
I know It involves penetration, great ball movement, lots of 3-pointers, lots of smiling, and hip bumping heading into the huddle after the opponent calls timeouts. And I know we saw it on Saturday against St. John's. Simply put, it looked easy for the Musketeers.
Xavier piled up 21 assists on 34 field goals and connected on 10-of-21 from 3-point range. Six players scored in double figures and everyone was more aggressive and played with more confidence.
As best I can tell, the biggest difference between the Musketeers offense when it was sputtering at times earlier in the year versus the last four games is how often their players are penetrating to make plays for each other. Earlier in the year, when the offense was stagnating it seemed that guys were pressing and trying to figure out how they could create a shot for themselves against a set defense. Now, guys seem to be driving with the intent of forcing the defense to react and then promoting ball movement with good kick-out or dump-off passes.
"I felt like we played OK together earlier in the season, but now I feel like we're really going right now," Bernard said. "Everybody is having fun. Everybody loves one another. And obviously, it's showing out there on the floor. I think we're sharing the ball a lot better now than we were before."
Mack said attacking off the bounce was a specific emphasis in the gameplan for St. John's, but it feels like it's been a big focus for his team since right before the start of conference play.
"I thought we played really unselfish," Mack said. "I think that's something that we've gotten better at over the last three or four games. We're finding the open man better than we were earlier in the year. We shot the eyes out of the ball in the first half."
Ed is figuring it out
Edmond Sumner has taken his game to new heights over the last two games.
Sumner posted 20 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals, and two turnovers in 33 minutes on Saturday. That came on the heels of a 28-point, 8-rebound, six-assist effort last Saturday at Georgetown.
He had multiple highlight reel plays - the most impressive of which yielded a tomahawk dunk from the middle of the lane - but the key to his development offensively has been the subtleties he's added to his game. Specifically, changing his speed and direction as opposed to trying to blow past every defender has been one of the biggest differences in his approach. Also, an understanding of how to use his length better has helped him become a more efficient scorer, such as when he stops to pivot in the middle of the lane and then uses a simple step-through move to score easily or when he slows up in the lane and floats a shot over a defender.
"Edmond, I think the last couple games, has found the way that we would love for him to play," Mack said. "Aggressive, downhill, drawing fouls, drawing other defenders. He's finishing in the lane better. He had a nice little floater and a dunk. He's also creating contact because he's so daggone quick and I think he's shooting the ball so much better than he did earlier in the year. I'm not intrigued by how many points he scores but how many opportunities he creates for both he and his teammates. That's the most important thing and then making the right decision from there."
Perhaps the most impressive part of his effort on Saturday was his defensive performance, though. He shut down St. John's leading scorer Shamorie Ponds and was disruptive in the process, forcing turnovers and getting deflections. Last year, the coaching staff needed to hide him at times. This year, they're putting him on the other team's leading scorer.
"It's not even close," Mack said. "I think he's made a big leap offensively, but he's made a double-big leap (defensively). He's locked in off the ball. He uses his length so much better on guys he defends. He's a problem. He can block shots. He can defensive rebound and start our break, but just his awareness of what the other team is trying to do and recognizing actions is probably where he's grown the most."
NBA Hall-of-Famer and current St. John's coach Chris Mullin was impressed with what he's seen from Sumner.
"I like him a lot," Mullin said when asked about Sumner's pro prospects. "He's got nice size, quickness, good change of pace. He's a real good player."
The bench is improving
Another positive sign for Xavier over the last few games has been the improved production of the bench. Saturday was the best performance yet for that unit.
Quentin Goodin, Kaiser Gates, and Tyrique Jones played together for the better part of a six-minute stretch during the first half in which the Musketeers went on a 21-4 run, turning an 18-9 deficit into a 30-22 lead.
"I thought our freshmen played really well today," Mack said. "I thought Tyrique Jones came in for both Rashid and Sean, who got early fouls, and had some good and some bad, but more good. He really, really rebounded the ball and finished like we expect him to finish around the basket against a very athletic team. And then that was Quentin Goodin's best game. It was exciting to see."
The whole unit brought energy, athleticism, and toughness on the defensive end. They came into the game locked in on the task at hand. Goodin was more aggressive than usual in transition and was also very disruptive on the defensive end. He forced multiple turnovers during the run by poking balls loose. Also, Gates was on fire from the outside. He scored a career-high 17 points and nailed 4-of-6 from 3-point range, including two during that early run, with five rebounds, two assists, and a steal in 27 minutes of action.
"I feel like (the knee scope) is a distant memory," Gates said. "It still gets sore every once in a while but I just have to push through it. That's part of the process. I'm pretty happy with how I'm playing. I'm happy with how the team is playing more so than myself."
Xavier held a 36-13 advantage in bench points. Jones added 10 points, five rebounds, and two blocks in 18 minutes. Goodin had four points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals, and no turnovers in 20 minutes. O'Mara had five points, three assists, and three rebounds in 14 minutes.
Goodin said going against a player as talented as Sumner every day in practice has improved his game quickly.
"He plays me really aggressive and then if I make a mistake he tells me how to correct it," Goodin said. "He's pushing me and then he's showing me where I can learn from my mistakes. It's helped me a lot. From the beginning of the season to now, I feel like I've grown a lot against Ed."