Eight days ago, Xavier was run out of Las Vegas by Arizona State, giving up 102 points in a 16-point loss to the Sun Devils.
The Musketeers’ response since then shows why Chris Mack might have his best team since taking over in 2009.
Xavier took the game to Cincinnati from the opening tip and never really let the Bearcats get within striking distance en route to an 89-76 win in the Crosstown Shootout rivalry game on Saturday.
The 89 points were the most Cincinnati has allowed in regulation since Feb. 11, 2012, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The minus-17 rebound margin was Cincinnati’s worst since Jan. 4, 2007. The Musketeers dominated in all facets of the game, getting layups early and then knocking down 3s from the perimeter once they opened up the defense.
This victory comes on the heels of a 13-point home win over previously unbeaten Baylor on Tuesday.
After last weekend’s loss to a perhaps underrated Arizona State team, there were some questions about Xavier at both ends of the floor. Could the Musketeers win big games if Trevon Bluiett was struggling? Did they have a consistent third option on the offensive end? Could they defend for 40 minutes against good teams? In retrospect, it looks like there was some overreaction. Arizona State shot lights-out, especially in the second half; Tra Holder scored 40 points; and hey, maybe Arizona State is just really good.
When Bluiett hits some perimeter shots early, there might not be a better scorer in the country. He was mired in a mini-slump the past two games, shooting 7-for-19 from the field and averaging 10.5 points in those two games. He bounced back, burying two 3-pointers in the opening minutes and finishing with 28 points on 14 shots from the field. He’s a terrific one-on-one scorer who is lethal when given an inch to get his shot off from the perimeter.
When Bluiett has it going, it opens things up for everyone else. J.P. Macura can be a secondary option, and Kaiser Gates’ emergence as a weapon from the perimeter -- 44.7 percent on nearly seven 3-point attempts per game -- has forced defenses to extend to the arc, opening up the interior for Sean O’Mara, Kerem Kanter and Tyrique Jones.
The development of sophomore point guard Quentin Goodin has also taken Xavier’s offense to a new level. Forced into an expanded role late last season after Edmond Sumner’s injury, Goodin improved over the summer. He had nine assists and no turnovers in the win over Baylor, and dished out eight more assists on Saturday. At 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds, Goodin is bigger and stronger than most opposing point guards; he’s using that size to get into the lane and find teammates for easy baskets.
There are few teams in the country as efficient offensively as Xavier when everything is clicking. Entering the day, the Musketeers ranked No. 6 nationally in offensive efficiency at KenPom.com -- and that was before scoring 89 points on just under 72 possessions Saturday.
Mack’s team also did a better job this week of taking away an opponent’s best offensive players. Baylor’s leading scorer, Manu Lecomte (17.7 points per game, 2.8 assists per game), had 11 points and zero assists on 4-for-13 shooting. Cincinnati’s leading scorer, Gary Clark, finished with 14 points -- but took 15 shots to get there.
The preseason talk surrounding Xavier was that it was a better team than last season. Given that the Musketeers reached the Elite Eight, that was a good thing. But last year’s team didn’t have the variety of weapons this year’s team has, both inside and outside. It didn’t have the swagger of this year’s team, and it didn’t guard and contest like this year’s team.
There’s still a long way to go, but this week’s response from Xavier shows the hype surrounding the Musketeers is deserved.