CINCINNATI — Matt Stainbrook was right at home the first time Xavier brought the basketball down the court Friday night. The Musketeers’ big man posted up on the low block, worked himself into position to receive the ball after his teammates had thrown three passes. Stainbrook got the ball, spun to the baseline and maneuvered his way to the basket for a layup.
The next time down the court, Stainbrook took a pass at the top of the key and fired away for a 3-pointer. He had made one 3-pointer all of last season. This shot matched that total.
Xavier blew out Northern Arizona, 93-60, in the season opener for both teams at the Cintas Center. The Musketeers have the potential to produce a lot of flash this season. Their roster has a variety of talent at every position. It has depth. It has players who came to campus full of scouting service stars next to their names.
And it has a foundation in Stainbrook.
Stainbrook started the season by scoring 18 points, pulling down nine rebounds and blocking three shots in 29 minutes. He averaged 10.6 points and 7.4 rebounds last season in earning honorable mention honors in the Big East. The conference coaches tabbed him as a first-team member this preseason. His role will be more important than what the stat sheet shows, although that figures to be significant.
"I want to try to lead by example on the court," said Stainbrook. "I don’t think there is any one thing offensively or defensively — obviously I want to be solid in those areas — but I want to be able to keep our team together. I think you saw that near the end of the game. We didn’t lose our composure but even when we’ve got James (Farr) cramping or Sean (O’Mara) fouling out and we may have a lineup in that we don’t necessarily want at the end of the game, we can’t give up that many points at the end. If we want to be a good defensive team, if we want to be as deep as we think we are, we have to be able to close games no matter what the score is."
Xavier led by 51 points, 86-35, on a dunk by guard Brandon Randolph with 6:47 left. Northern Arizona then scored the next 12 straight points and closed the game out on a 25-7 run.
Before head coach Chris Mack had gotten back into the locker room to speak with the players, Stainbrook and a couple of others had already delivered the message that the final minutes weren’t good enough.
"It’s good to know that it was addressed by guys that have been around the block before I talked about it," said Mack. "The constant striving for improvement, and today was just a first step. We’ll see how we improve in that area, of finishing games."
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin last year compared Stainbrook to Billy Paultz, who was nicknamed "The Whopper" and played 16 seasons in the ABA and NBA from 1970-85. There’s nothing flashy about anyone named "The Whopper." There’s nothing flashy about Stainbrook. Xavier will have plenty of flash to go around this season. It needs its own "Whopper."
Stainbrook heard the comparison at that time. He didn’t know who Paultz was then but looked him up. He took the comparison as Lavin intended it; as a compliment.
"I remember looking him up — he maybe wore glasses or had curly hair — and they said he was very hefty but he was also nimble on his toes," said Stainbrook.
Freshman Trevon Bluiett equaled Stainbrook for scoring honors with 18 points. Sophomore Jalen Reynolds made 8-of-9 shots and scored 16 points, just one off his career high. Sophomore guard Myles Davis hit all three 3-pointers he took and finished with 13 points. Xavier had 22 assists as a team but also committed 16 turnovers.
There is a lot of reason for the Musketeers to be excited. Their foundation wants to make sure that excitement is tempered along the way.
"Let’s say we’re playing at Villanova," said Stainbrook. "We can’t have guys getting into foul trouble, or if we have a lead we can’t melt down. (Northern Arizona) hit some tough shots, some crazy shots, but that can’t be our excuse. We can’t self-destruct. I want to be, on and off the court, that rock. I don’t try to be the most vocal leader all of the time. I’m not going to yell and scream but I want guys to be able to look at me in the heat of a game and see me calm and collected."