(Photo Courtesy of James Ernest)
The Xavier Musketeers unofficially started their season on Saturday afternoon with an 80-56 victory over the Ferris State Bulldogs. The Bulldogs were clearly no match for the Muskies who failed to capitalize on a sometimes sloppy debut performance of the 2016-17 Musketeers.
An exhibition game should be taken for what it is. The game doesn’t count, and its more of an opportunity for both teams to get an early read on what their identity will be, what they do well and what they need to work on.
It’s imprudent to place much stock in the game, but even an untrained eye learned a little something about the Muskies.
Here’s the skinny on what I learned from the first “real” action for the 2016-17 season.
- Xavier’s backcourt: With 58 points coming from Xavier’s most highly regarded returners in Blueitt, Sumner and Macura, it’s clear that the X-men have three legitimate threats to score 20+ points on any given night. While Xavier has routinely built success on spreading the wealth as far as scoring goes, it’s a luxury to know that any one of these three guys can have a breakout performance and carry the scoring load.
On an afternoon where the three-point shot wasn’t (except for Macura who went three for three with two uncontested shots late), the top scorers for Xavier showed their versatility and ability to get to the charity stripe.
- Defensive versatility: Mack’s starting lineup was an unexpected one. He rolled out Sumner, Macura, Blueitt, graduate transfer Malcolm Bernard and Sean O’Mara, but the advantages of this lineup showed glaringly on the defensive end. With four guys over 6’5 playing the one through four positions on the court, the Musketeers overall length will likely bother teams all year long.
The Musketeers were able to shed or ignore screens along the three-point arc by simply switching guarding responsibilities. When Sumner was screened, he switched with the screener, effectively nullifying any rolling opportunities off the ball. When the big men come to set the screen, the Muskies simply utilized their traditional hedge, again disrupting any drive-to-the-basket opportunities for the offense.
Their uniformity in length was also evident in their 1-3-1 defense where they were able, as Xavier fans are accustomed to, stymie the half-court offense along the three-point arc. Sumner wreaked havoc in the lanes, snaring three errant passes for steals out of the zone.
- Malcolm Bernard: Bernard was a relatively unknown commodity for fans coming into this exhibition. His stats at his previous schools speak for themselves and he proved to be a stat stuffer in this one, dropping nine points, ten rebounds, and four assists.
It was apparent in this game that he is an efficient player, has a high basketball IQ and a knack for being in the right spot at the right time. He is one of the most experienced player Xavier has and showed why he was such a valuable addition in his debut in the white and blue.
- Depth: Whereas in previous seasons, the Musketeers could go 11 deep, as of now, the 2016-2017 squad is only eight players deep. Hopefully, that will change, as sophomore Kaiser Gates is expected to be available in a couple weeks after recovering from knee surgery. If Gates returns and stays healthy, and Davis earns his way back onto the team, depth will no longer be a concern.
It’s not as though Xavier fans should be discouraged by the lack of productivity from the bench players, all of whom showed flashes of their high ceilings. The concern lies in when Mack is looking down at his bench at the end of the first half or half way through the second quarter and finds that he has nobody to replace an injured player or someone in foul trouble.
Sumner, Blueitt and Macura can undoubtedly shoulder the scoring load, but the lack of bodies in the early going is something to keep an eye on in crunch time and games where the zebras are in full force.
- The frontcourt: This was not a good showing at all for the frontcourt, especially the five position. Ferris State was severely undersized up front and yet neither O’Mara nor Gaston was able to exploit their physical advantage.
As I stated earlier, it’s foolish to put too much stock or analysis into an exhibition game, but the lack of productivity was certainly discouraging, to say the least. O’Mara and Gaston combined for a minuscule four points and nine rebounds. Yes, you can chalk up Gaston’s performance to overexcitement in his first game in the Xavier uniform, but he has got to make more of an imprint when it matters.
O’Mara’s performance is a little more concerning. He went 1-4 from the field missing several bunny shots where he was able to gain excellent positioning. At times, he didn’t look ready to receive the ball, and his catching abilities still leave a lot to be desired.
I still believe these two will be ready to go when it matters and they have reinforcements coming in Gates. Jones showed his abilities as a shot blocker and if he can get in and stay on the court, that ability as a rim protector could add a wrinkle to Xavier’s game that they’ve never truly had.
Again, this was a lowly exhibition game, and although we got our first look at what this team is about, it’s important to remember that this was a very small sample size. As much as I think I learned, Mack and the coaching staff learned ten times that and know what their guys are capable of.
Here are a few tidbit observations to look out for.
- Sumner looks very confident. I had to hold my breath several times as Sumner went tear-passing into the lane. He looked very comfortable initiating contact and going to the line. At the same time, he showed an improved shooting ability, pulling up for mid-range jumpers off the dribble and runners in the lane. He also looked a lot better as a distributor and running the offense.
- I mentioned it briefly earlier, but Tyrique Jones could be the shot blocker Xavier has never had. He has a college-ready body and a surprising athleticism for his size. He had two blocks in the game, but he altered several others as leaped up to swat them. Although his shot-altering abilities won’t be as important in the 1-3-1, he could put up good shot blocking numbers coming from the weak side on help defense in the man-to-man.
- Macura is a very savvy player. This might not be a stop-the-presses type observation for the Xavier faithful, but it looks like he has taken another step forward this year. After his first couple games in a Xavier uniform, I told my dad that he would be a top-five scorer in the Big East by his senior year. If what he showed on Saturday wasn’t a flash in the plan, my prediction might come true by the end of this year. He could easily be the leading scorer on this top ten team.
- Cintas is going to be rocking all year. The Xavier faithful showed up to get a first glimpse at this team, and although Cintas wasn’t filled, the fans were very into the game. The student section, on the other hand, was filled to capacity. If you looked over at the student section, you would have never guessed that this was an exhibition game.
What do you think about these takeaways? Did I miss anything? Let me know below.
Below you will find Xavier’s post-game press conference.