Another game, another victory against the familiar foe in Northern Iowa. Xavier played by far their best defensive game of the year on Saturday, and probably their best game overall.
The Muskies looked much better in their second go-round against the Panthers. After playing a tight contest against them in Orlando, the Muskies were able to dominate from start to finish in this one. They played one of the best defensive halves in Xavier history, holding UNI to a minuscule 12 points in the first half.
Although the low shooting percentage can be chalked up to a bad shooting day for UNI, in the dominating win, Mack showed his superior coaching prowess by having his guys ready to go and exploiting everything they learned about the Panthers just a few days before.
Here’s what I took away from Saturday and a busy week in college basketball.
Requiem for the Big East?
The conference is off to a hot start, with four teams starting their seasons 6-0. Most everyone expected this from Xavier and Villanova, and a lot of people were giving Creighton love before the season started. While Creighton may or may not be a surprise to people, Butler has come from nowhere to impress in the early going.
The Big East has started the season 44-15 with several signature wins over Power Five conferences including Purdue, Wisconsin, Oregon, Clemson and Arizona. Yes, the bottom teams have some questionable losses, but in the early going, they have been a top three conference in basketball. Xavier has a couple of great opportunities ahead to notch some more signature wins for the conference against a top ten Baylor team, Colorado, and Utah.
It’s early in the season, but that’s the point. The Big East teams won’t get another opportunity to play quality non-conference opponents until the tourney rolls around. It’s good for the conference to land those first punches when Selection Sunday rolls around. So far, the overlooked “New Big East” has looked better than the majority of the “Power Five” conferences.
The A-10 was good to Xavier, but it’s nice to know that the Muskies will get their shots at signature wins no matter how they schedule in the non-conference.
More of what we’ve come to expect from X.
The second win against UNI highlighted the signatures of what we as fans come to expect from our Musketeers: solid defense and out-rebounding opponents. This formula almost always leads X to the win column, and in dominated performances like this one, they are emphatically for the Muskies.
Xavier doubled up UNI in the rebounding column and held them to just five offensive rebounds while reeling in 15 of their own. This is a good sign for the Muskies who are lacking the height up front that they have had in years past. When Mack’s teams rebound, Mack’s teams win.
Their defense was the real bright spot from this game. Going back to 2014-2015, you could tell that it bothered Mack on a weekly basis that his team was conceding 70-90 points in nearly every contest. They have improved on that in the two years since, and although they won’t be holding teams to 42 very often, their defense has looked good.
Xavier held UNI to a mere 14 made field goals on Saturday and an astonishing 12 points in the first half (flashback to watching my 4th-grade sister’s basketball team). They didn’t have to run much of their 1-3-1 at all which lately seems to be only utilized when the opposition is scoring too quickly against the pack-line man. Mack doesn’t seem to want to use it. Assuming his team keeps playing solid man and stays out of foul trouble, I don’t see them playing the 1-3-1 as much as they have in the past.
Reinforcements are coming.
It was really good to see Kaiser Gates back in the lineup on Saturday. He didn’t affect the game in any statistical way, but it’s imperative that he gets as much court time as possible leading up to the Baylor game.
Having watched a lot of Baylor basketball over Thanksgiving, it seems likely that Xavier’s best physical match for Baylor’s Jonathan Motley. The 6’10 junior plays a lot around the basket but is too long to be a favorable matchup for Bluiett and too quick for O’Mara.
I’m not a coach, so I don’t know what the answer is for the 17.8 points per game, but on paper and in a side-by-side comparison, it looks to be Gates.
There have been stirrings as to when Davis will come back, and it seems more likely than not that he will. The rumor mill has it that he will rejoin the team at semester’s end. What that means for his return and how likely that is is still unclear.
The Muskies have been able to weather the storm without him and are better for it, but Davis’s return could be the tipping point for the Muskies going forward. Their three-point shooting has been less than impressive at .296. That number will certainly go up, but if you add Davis into the mix, the result will be more open shots for good shooter in addition to Davis’s already proven three-point prowess.
Xavier plays Tuesday against a 5-2 North Dakota State team. Their biggest test of the young season comes on Saturday against the undefeated and ninth-ranked Baylor Bears. That game is the best one of the week in college basketball when you consider it’s Big 12 vs. Big East and a matchup of top ten teams who will likely be undefeated. Should be a fun one and a real measuring stick for the Muskies.
Here are a few more odds and ends.
The freshmen are proving extremely valuable: Sure they’ve had their freshmen moments, but both Jones and Goodin have contributed to the six wins on the season. Jones is doing the dirty work averaging 4.5 rebound in just under 12 minutes per contest. Goodin has shown his ability as both a distributor and scorer averaging 4.7 points and 1.8 assists in nearly 18 minutes per game. Their minutes may level off as the season progresses, but the experiences they have gained thus far will prove invaluable down the road.
The big three have played a lot of minutes: Sumner, Macura, and Bluiett are all in the top three in minutes played thus far in the Big East. Again, if/when Davis returns, and the more Gates gets acclimated, this should drop. I don’t see this being a problem as they are all undoubtedly well-conditioned, but it’s something to think about, especially after seeing Sumner cramp up on Saturday.
This is Xavier’s best team ever: That’s just my opinion, and it’s a toss-up between this year’s team, last year’s and the 2008 Elite Eight squad. But they have three guys averaging over 16 points per game which are exciting and makes for some fun basketball. They aren’t as big and not as impressive (yet) as teams in years past, but I do believe that they are the most talented and most athletic team Xavier has ever put out on the floor.
Let me know what you think. If you agree or, disagree.