Xavier won its most important game left on its schedule Wednesday night 72-61 over DePaul at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.
The Blue Demons are ranked 177 in KenPom and 235 in the RPI which made Wednesday night's game the biggest pitfall left on the Musketeers' schedule that could have dragged them down to the bubble when looking at NCAA Tournament at-large bids. Xavier will have to take care of DePaul one more time on March 4 when the Musketeers meet up with the Blue Demons in Chicago to close the regular season, but that game would be slightly less damaging to their NCAA Tournament resume considering it's on the road.
Trevon Bluiett led XU Wednesday night with 20 points to go with seven rebounds. He was 8-for-18 from the field and 4-for-8 from 3-point range. RaShid Gaston scored 14 and posted five boards while JP Macura had 13 points, seven rebounds, and six assists to round out the XU scorers in double-figures.
DePaul's Brandon Cyrus was the surprise performer of the night. The freshman wing scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting and grabbed six boards for the Blue Demons. Leading scorer Eli Cain finished with 15 points (6-14 FG, 1-5 3PT), five boards, and four assists.
The win was neither aesthetically pleasing or impressive for the Musketeers, but it did show a certain level of consistency in how they've played over the last three games since Edmond Sumner went down.
"It wasn't pretty," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "Way too many turnovers… sign of a little bit of a tired team. Give DePaul credit, they changed defenses. They changed ways they did things in both man and in zone, but we still have to be better with the ball, especially when our freshman (Quentin Goodin) only has two (turnovers). We've got to get some help from our perimeter players being stronger with the ball."
Xavier took a 41-34 lead into halftime despite turning the ball over 12 times which allowed DePaul to stay in the game with 12 first half points off of those miscues. The Musketeers shot 35.7 percent from the field in the second half, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range, and turned the ball over seven more times, but managed to hang on by holding DePaul to 27 points after intermission.
"In the second half, I thought we did a really good job in our zone (defense)," Mack said. "We've probably practiced it 45 minutes all year. It wasn't something that at the beginning of the year we expected to play but with our numbers being what they are we feel like it's what's most effective for us to win games. Anytime you can win in this league, you're fortunate."
Bluiett stayed hot from deep and made big shots, Macura provided enough in terms of scoring and other aspects to be his sidekick, Tyrique Jones and RaShid Gaston were solid in the frontcourt, freshman point guard Quentin Goodin played a good floor game, and Kaiser Gates made a difference with his defense and rebounding.
The shooting isn't always there with this group but there seems to be a certain level of play and effort that can now be expected from them. They're settling well into their new roles. Guys are taking pride in contributing in areas other than just scoring - Gates averaging 9.0 rebounds over the last four games in which he's seen increased minutes (25.3 mpg) is the best example.
"That's a statistic you're allowed to be greedy in," Mack said of Gates' rebounding. "Nobody's going to get upset if you're grabbing too many rebounds. He's really placed an emphasis on both ends of the floor. In our zone, I thought he was coming out from the perimeter, contesting shots, and then running in and collecting some big-time rebounds. He did it at Creighton on Saturday and he certainly did it tonight as well."
Even with Goodin spending 11 minutes on the bench, the Musketeers looked competent and, at times, fluid offensively while Macura was running the point.
"We're not a perfect team but to have a rebounding margin of plus 15… I have a freshman point guard going against DePaul's all-time free-throw shooting leader and he still managed to play almost 30 minutes… we'll take it," Mack said. "We're not going to be perfect from here on out. We do have to be better with the basketball. We're worn down a little bit. We have to get our battery recharged. I'm sure our focus will be there because we're playing one of the best teams in the country (on Saturday)."
"I think we have some very competitive guys."
The ship has clearly been righted and the waters are smoothing out. This team's ceiling may not be as high now as it was when the season started, but it also hasn't been relegated to "just survive and make the tournament" status. Team 95 is playing solid and even showing improvement heading down the stretch.