Quentin Goodin, now an outright Big East champion, dribbled the ball up calmly. He dumped it in to Sean O’Mara, who swung it to J.P. Macura for a layup that extended Xavier’s lead to 65-62.
After that basket, the Musketeers needed to string together nearly two minutes of flawless defense against last placed DePaul to finish what they came here to accomplish.
“We wanted to be standing by ourselves with the Big East Championship,” Macura said. So Naji Marshall tracked down DePaul forward Brandon Cyrus on the fast break and pinned his layup attempt off the backboard with 45 seconds to go. On the Blue Demons’ last trip on offense, Xavier prevented them from getting off an uncontested shot in its 65-62 win that clinched the undisputed championship.
At this point last season, Xavier headed to Chicago for its season finale with deteriorating confidence and waning tournament hopes. Instead of having a No. 1 seed on the line, the Musketeers were coming off a 95-84 senior night loss to Marquette, which was Xavier’s sixth straight defeat.
The panic caused them to call an early March team meeting, where Trevon Bluiett said he expected more from everyone, especially Goodin, who had struggled as a freshman in his starting role during conference play.
“It was like we’re done with this losing,” Quentin Goodin said about their discussion. “We wanted to win. We didn’t care who scored the most points, who got the ball more. We just wanted to win.”
Xavier is 33-6 since that night. Saturday, Xavier won a program record 27th regular season game behind effective ball movement, tight perimeter defense on DePaul guard Max Strus and Bluiett’s 22 points in his last chance to make his case for First Team All American.
But before they took the floor, Chris Mack said he reminded them of where they were the last time they played at DePaul. He highlighted how Xavier was able to build off its 79-65 win here on March 4, 2017.
“We played like a group that was primal screaming,” he said as he pounded the table. “We were out there playing for one another recklessly… There’s going to be a lot of teams like Xavier in 2016-17. We can’t be the entitled fat cat that wears a one seed or a two seed.”
With most of the same pieces in place from last season’s team, who emerged from its losing streak with a run to the Big East Tournament semifinals and then the Elite 8, Xavier enters the Big East Tournament with a No. 3 national ranking and the clear path to a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Bluiett, who set the school record for made three pointers in a career, is having a career year. And he credits Goodin for the Musketeers’ evolution into one of the nation’s best offenses, which gives them the clout to call themselves a top 4 team.
After playing sparingly in the first half of his freshman last year, Goodin was forced into a starting role after Edmond Sumner tore his ACL in early January. And after Sumner went down, Goodin was both Xavier’s starting point guard and their only point guard. To make it more difficult for him, Bluiett dealt with injuries throughout conference play, preventing Goodin from getting his footing until the Big East Tournament when everyone was finally healthy.
This season, though, the offense hit the ground running. Goodin, who’s second in the conference with 5.1 assists per game, has been a significant factor. “We just give him all the confidence in the world,” Macura said. “We really trust him with decision making and I think he knows that.” Mack, too, trusted him to make the right play when he handed him the ball late in the game and told him to thread the needle and find O’Mara.
In conference play this year, Bluiett, Macura and Xavier’s regular centers (O’Mara, Kerem Kanter and Tyrique Jones) have been more productive because of Goodin’s improved ability to share the ball and involve his teammates.
These charts capture Goodin’s influence. Bluiett and Macura are both noticeably more efficient from the field and have each attempted more 3-pointers in their senior seasons. Goodin’s ability to handle the ball and ease their work loads allows the offense to flow.
Also, Bluiett and Xavier’s centers have considerably more assists per possession this year. Not only is Goodin sharing the ball, but Xavier is moving the ball considerably better than it has in the past.
Despite his impact at the end of the game, at one point in the second half Goodin was 0-5 from the field with three fouls. So Mack turned to his other point guard, freshman Paul Scruggs. After leading Xavier with nine points in the first half, he helped push them through a rough stretch early on in the second half by attacking the basket to initiate offense.
After the game, Mack said he wouldn’t have expected Scruggs earlier in the season to lead the offense like he did because “Paul was pathetic.” Against DePaul, Scruggs finished with 11 points and just one turnover in 17 minutes. Like Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis did for Bluiett and Macura when they were freshmen, Mack said his seniors have played a significant role in both Goodin and Scruggs’ development.
“They’re our two most improved players,” Mack said. “Now, Paul Scruggs is in the huddle and Trevon Bluiett is locking eyes with [him] and he’s not smacking his lips about not getting a shot on the last possession.”
He adds, “It’s a great culture that we have that J.P., Sean and Tre sustained.”
After the win over DePaul, Bluiett said he doesn’t care about securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That wasn’t the goal they set in the summer. Exactly a year after making the tournament felt like moving a mountain, the Musketeers don’t need a team meeting to show their young players what it’s going to take.
“Two years ago we were a two seed but we know how that ended up,” Bluiett said. “(Now) it’s all about bringing it.”