No. 16 Xavier wary of St. John’s backcourt

CINCINNATI — It’s barely a week into the Big East Conference schedule, but after losses by top-ranked Villanova and Butler this past week, there’s just one remaining unbeaten team in the league: No. 16 Xavier.

“We have a leaderboard in the locker room,” said Musketeers forward Sean O’Mara. “It’s nice to see us on top.”

Xavier (12-2, 2-0 Big East) have won five straight games and 14 straight at Cintas Center as it prepares to host St. John’s on Saturday afternoon in a matchup of the league’s best young backcourts.

Xavier leads the series 4-3, but many of the games have been hotly contested.

Last January, the Musketeers led by 12 points at St. John’s but the Red Storm rallied to within one point with two minutes left before the Musketeers held on for a 74-66 win. At Cintas Center in February, St. John’s led 44-40 in the second half but Xavier pulled away for a 90-83 victory.

St. John’s (8-8, 2-1) is led by freshman Shamorie Ponds, who averages 17.6 points and 5.3 rebounds.

“I think he’s probably going to be freshman of the year (in the conference),” said Xavier guard Malcolm Bernard. “We just have to make him uncomfortable and not give him too much wiggle room.”

Ponds, a three-time Big East freshman of the week, has scored 15 or more points in nine of his past 10 games and already has six 20-point performances.

Xavier coach Chris Mack coached Ponds with USA Basketball this past summer.

“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Mack said. “I’m a little surprised by the poise and the confidence he plays with as a freshman.”

Ponds and fellow freshman Marcus LoVett both are averaging more than 17 points, giving the Red Storm a dynamic guard tandem.

“You could just see the young guys grow up as you watch them on film from the start of the season until recently. I was scared to death of this game,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after his team defeated St. John’s 85-72 on Wednesday at Carnesecca Arena.

The Red Storm upset Butler No. 18 in late December but there won’t be much of a fear factor for Xavier entering Saturday’s game, not in the friendly confines of Cintas Center and with sophomore point guard Edmond Sumer playing at a high level.

Sumner earned a spot on the Big East’s weekly honor roll after averaging 20.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists in wins over Providence and Georgetown. He scored a career-high 28 points with eight rebounds and six assists in the win over the Hoyas on his 21st birthday.

Sumner, who’s finally healthy after dealing with a hand issue for a few weeks, leads the team with 4.8 assists per game, tied for third in the Big East, and is second on the team in scoring at 15.3 points.

“He never offered (the hand) as an excuse,” said Mack. “He played through it. He’s as close to 100 percent as he’s been.”

Musketeers guard Trevon Bluiett is living up to his All-American expectations with a team-leading 17.9 points per game and eight 20-point outings.

The schedule doesn’t soften at all for Xavier, which on Tuesday begins a stretch of road games at No. 1 Villanova and No. 18 Butler before hosting No. 10 Creighton on Jan. 16.

“The upcoming set of games is really challenging,” O’Mara said. “It’s good for us as a team.”