Xavier had an impressive win over Georgetown Wednesday, storming back from 17 down late in the first to grab a six point win, and doing it without junior point guard in Quentin Goodin.
Several things from this game stood out, such as the play of Tyrique Jones and Zach Hankins together, only committing four turnovers, and holding Georgetown to just 4-21 from three-point range after they started 6-6.
But something else stood out as well: the play of Elias Harden. Harden had his best game of the season against Georgetown. He looked as comfortable on the floor as he has so far this year, making good decisions and playing solid defense, especially when Xavier was in zone.
Depth has been a problem for the Musketeers this year, particularly at the guard spots. Last season, only Trevon Bluiett averaged more than 30 minutes per game. This year, Goodin, Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs all average over 30 minutes, with Marshall topping Bluiett at 34.8 minutes a game and Goodin being just below the average at 34.0 minutes a game.
Coming into the season, Goodin and Scruggs were the only two proven guards on the roster. Harden averaged 5.6 minutes a game last year in 18 games, so while he got some time, it wasn’t much.
With Goodin out against Georgetown, Harden got an opportunity for extended minutes, and he capitalized with arguably his best performance of the season. His 24 minutes were a season high, and they were 24 very good minutes.
Harden made a few big plays in the game as well. When he checked in at the end of the first half, he got a steal that helped Xavier keep its scoring run going. In the second half, he hit two big three-pointers that gave Xavier a one point lead. He secured multiple rebounds down the stretch and hit a free throw to put the Musketeers back up five with 14 seconds left.
It led to seven points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal. A quiet line, but his impact went beyond the box score. Performances like this should help him continue to earn more minutes in the rotation.
If Harden is able to earn more consistent minutes with these kinds of performances, it could help solve more problems than just depth.
It would help in other areas as well. Harden is currently third on the team in three point percentage, shooting 38.5% from beyond the arc, albeit on a small sample of 26 attempts, making 10. Having Harden on the floor more could help open up the offense, allowing players like Goodin and Marshall larger lanes to the hoop and get going down hill more easily.
Opening up driving lanes and having shooters to pass to make players like Goodin, Marshall and Scruggs even more dangerous. Having another shooter on the floor forces the defense into difficult decisions as to whether to stay on their man or provide help.
If Harden can remain a consistent shooter, leaving him open is not a good option. But neither is letting Goodin, Marshall or Scruggs stay in one-on-one situations going to the hoop.
Having another shooter would also force opposing teams to not pack the paint as much defense, which could open up more opportunities not just for the aforementioned three, but also Jones and Hankins.
As mentioned earlier, Harden was also good on defense against Georgetown. His length on the wing helps him keep his man in front of him on defense, but also allows him to be a pest in the zone.
Making it more difficult for passes to get through, whether the ball is stolen or the offense is just forced to work harder as a result, helps keep the offense from getting into its natural flow.
When there is more good defenders available off the bench, it helps keep legs fresh and players get less tired throughout the game.
Harden is a good defender when he’s on the floor, and combined with his three-point shot and the good decision making he displayed against Georgetown, could be that missing piece that gives Xavier exactly what it needs: more depth, more shooting, and more quality defense to help keep other players fresh.
Could this be a little reactionary after just one performance? Possibly, but as we’ve seen through the years, young players have a tendency to improve once conference play gets underway. Marshall earned his starting spot during conference play and Scruggs improved more in conference than the non-conference just last season.
Goodin also improved quite a bit in Big East play his freshman year, as did Jones. Kaiser Gates did as well, scoring the vast majority of his points in conference games his freshman year.
Harden could be latest in a line of players who see their games elevate as they face tougher competition night in and night out.
This kind of performance becoming a regular game from Harden could be exactly what this team needs.