Xavier looks to continue fast start vs. DePaul

CINCINNATI — On the surface, everything appears rosy for sixth-ranked Xavier, which is off to one of the best starts in school history.

The Musketeers are 13-1 and have won eight straight games, including this past week at Northern Iowa and Marquette. The 13 wins equal Xavier’s most through 14 games.

But, head coach Chris Mack always is looking for areas to improve. The Musketeers are prone to defensive lapses and they go through spells where they don’t take care of the ball. In Wednesday’s 91-87 win over Marquette, Xavier was bested on the offensive boards 12-9, and outscored 18-7 on second-chance points.

In the physical Big East Conference, the Musketeers can’t be timid when it comes to crashing the boards, particularly on the offensive end.

“We need to be a better offensive rebounding team,” Mack said, following the win over Marquette. “I think sometimes our guys assume too much that the shot’s going in. We have to be better.”

Xavier (13-1, 1-0 Big East) ranks second in the conference in rebounding margin, but is second from the bottom in offensive rebounding. It’s something the Musketeers can begin to focus on Saturday when they host DePaul (7-6, 0-1) at Cintas Center.

“We’re not as good of a rebounding team as, maybe, we’ve been over the last two or three years,” said Mack. “but it doesn’t mean we can’t be.”

Mack gets the benefit of the doubt. His teams typically are much improved by March and this group of Musketeers already owns wins over Baylor, Cincinnati, and Wisconsin on its resume. As of Thursday, Xavier was No. 2 in the RPI behind Duke, with a schedule strength that was ranked 11th.

After a smattering of injuries around the holidays, Xavier entered Big East play with a healthy roster.

Trevon Bluiett is firing on all cylinders, now averaging 20 points to lead the team. He had 23 in the win over Marquette. But, the most impressive recent stretch of any Musketeers player has been that of graduate transfer Kerem Kanter, who, after a slow start to his Xavier career, has scored in double figures in four of the past seven games.

The Musketeers lead the all-time series 11-9, including six straight wins and victories in nine of the last 10 meetings. Xavier defeated DePaul three times last season, including 79-65 in the regular-season finale in Chicago, and 75-64 in the next game for both teams at the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. DePaul hasn’t beaten Xavier since a 71-68 win at home on Jan. 3, 2015.

DePaul began Big East play this week with a loss to top-ranked Villanova. Max Strus leads the Blue Demons at 17.5 points per game, one of four players averaging in double figures. The issue for DePaul on Saturday might be depth, with six players averaging more than 24 minutes and no other player averaging more than 15.

DePaul averages 74.9 points while Xavier drops in more than 87.