<
>

Xavier's bench and balance make the difference against Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- It was the first top-10 matchup since the Dunkin’ Donuts Center opened in 1972 -- and depth was the difference.

Providence had the two best players on the court -- Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil -- but Xavier's balance and long bench ultimately gave the Musketeers a 75-68 road win.

Providence was coming off an impressive road win against Villanova the past weekend, but the Friars have dropped three of their past four home games to Marquette, Seton Hall and, now, Xavier.

Bentil and Dunn combined for 41 points, but the rest of the team managed just 27. Xavier’s Edmond Sumner, arguably the Musketeers' most important player, struggled all night, but Chris Mack got solid production from his two big men, James Farr and Jalen Reynolds, and key contributions down the line from Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis, Remy Abell and J.P. Macura.

MUSKETEERS HAVE SHOT AT TOP SEED

This is a Xavier team that improved to 18-2 and has a legitimate chance to secure a No. 1 seed if it can finish strong and edge Villanova for the top spot in the Big East. The resume is impressive: Road wins at Providence and a healthy Michigan team, wins over Dayton and USC on a neutral court, and home victories against Cincinnati and Butler.

Xavier still has both Villanova and Providence at the Cintas Center, as well as St. John’s, Marquette and Creighton on its home floor. The road games: DePaul, Creighton, Butler, Georgetown and Seton Hall.

Chris Mack has done a job that deserves National Coach of the Year consideration, and he has done it with just one top-50 recruit on his roster: Bluiett.

FRIARS MISSING HEALTHY FAZEKAS

Providence came into the game shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc in seven Big East games. The Friars went 7-of-34 (21 percent) in the loss to Xavier.

The team’s top 3-point shooter, freshman Ryan Fazekas, hasn’t been the same since he returned from mono. Fazekas has come off the bench since coming back. He is averaging 13 minutes per game and has shot 2-of-17 from beyond the arc. He has lost weight and confidence.

Fazekas played sparingly in the loss Tuesday. He finished with just two points and did not attempt a 3-pointer.

Prior to being out of the lineup for a month from Dec. 5 to Jan. 5, Fazekas was the team’s most reliable perimeter shooter and a fixture in the starting lineup. He was 17-of-36 from 3, which gave Ed Cooley someone who could spread the court and provide space for Dunn and Bentil.

SUMNER STRUGGLES

The point guard matchup between Dunn and Sumner never quite materialized, largely due to the fact that the Musketeers' redshirt freshman was ineffective.

The 6-foot-6 Sumner finished with one point and was 0-for-9 from the field. Sumner missed more than two weeks following a concussion suffered in a scary fall Dec. 31 at Villanova, but he played well in the three games since his return.

Sumner scored in double figures in all three games and also averaged 4.3 assists per contest. However, he appeared out of sync from the outset. Even so, while he wasn’t able to score, he did a nice job defensively.

DUNN STILL TOP POINT GUARD

There’s no guard in the country better than Dunn at anticipating on the defensive end and getting deflections.

Although his perimeter shot still needs to be more consistent and his decision-making remains questionable at times, Dunn is the best all-around player in the country, thanks to his ability to change the game on the defensive end of the floor and make his teammates better.

“There’s no doubt he’s a top-five pick, maybe top-three,” one NBA executive said of Dunn. “Sure, he needs to clean some things up, but who doesn’t?”

Dunn came into the game shooting 49 percent from 3 in league contests, but he was just 1-for-6 from deep Tuesday. He throws some incredible passes but had 48 assists and 33 turnovers in seven conference games.

“I’d like to see him value the ball more,” the NBA executive said. “But that will happen when he gets to the NBA, or else, he won’t play.”