CINCINNATI — It’s easy to see why Xavier has some lofty aspirations this season, even if the Musketeers are just beginning to work out the kinks.
Tyrique Jones had 17 points and 11 rebounds, Naji Marshall also scored 17 and No. 19 Xavier beat Jacksonville 76-57 on Tuesday night.
Defense is expected to be a strength for the Musketeers, picked to finish third in the Big East Conference preseason coaches’ poll, and that was evident in the season opener.
“As a team, we’re very good on the defensive end,” Marshall said. “It’s not just one person. It’s the whole team.”
Xavier forced 13 turnovers in the first half and 18 overall while limiting the Dolphins to 5-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.
“We have the chance to be an elite defensive team,” Xavier coach Travis Steele said. “That’s got to be our identity. It’s got to be who we are. If we do that, we have a chance to be a successful team this year.”
Paul Scruggs scored all 12 of his points in the first half, including a pair of 3-pointers, to help the Musketeers build a 21-point lead at the break. Bryce Moore’s 3 off an assist from Scruggs put Xavier ahead 41-22 late in the half.
But the Musketeers took their foot off the gas late in the second half. And with 4:28 remaining and Xavier up by 17, Steele called a timeout and angrily addressed his team.
Xavier led by as many as 30 points, but was outscored 35-33 in the second half.
“Our guys need to learn to play 40 minutes,” Steele said, “not just 25 or 26.”
It was a sloppy performance at times for the Musketeers, who return four starters from last year’s NIT team. Xavier committed 11 turnovers, shot 58% from the free throw line and 17% from 3-point range.
“We’re a much better shooting team than 4 for 23,” Steele said. “When we take good shots.”
Aamahne Santos and Bryce Workman each had 15 points for Jacksonville.
“Obviously, we’re playing against a team that has a lot of accolades early in the year,” Jacksonville coach Tony Jasick said. “I think we settled in a little bit. We finished some possessions defensively in the second half. We can take a handful of good things out of this game.”
Jacksonville hasn’t defeated a Top 25 opponent since beating No. 20 Florida 71-68 in overtime on Dec 20, 2010.
Xavier has won 30 straight openers dating to a 97-90 loss to Southern Utah State on Dec. 2, 1989.
Xavier freshman Zach Freemantle electrified the crowd in the first half with a two-handed dunk in transition off a pass from Marshall for his first career points. Freemantle, a 6-foot-9 forward, had 11 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes. “He’s going to be really good for this team,” Jones said. “Can’t wait to see what else he brings to the team.”
Jones recorded his 12th career double-double. With no Jacksonville player able to body him up, the senior forward finished 7 for 8 from the field. “He makes the game really easy,” Marshall said. “Just get the ball down to Tyrique and let him do his thing.” Jones had 10 double-doubles last season.
Jacksonville hosts Johnson (FL) on Friday.
Xavier hosts Siena on Friday.