Expectations be damned: Xavier is legit

BasketballOver the past half-decade Xavier has stridently attempted to distance themselves from the “mid-major” moniker, instead likening themselves a major basketball program located outside of the traditional power conferences. Despite posting success on par with some of the more successful major programs (11 NCAA appearances in 12 years don’t lie, folks), the status quo kept them, and the rest of the Atlantic 10, on the mid-major level, resulting in a program-wide chip on the shoulder. Drew Lavender famously rejected a Mid-Major Player of the Week award in 2008 and one merely had to watch Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons play to understand their me-against-the-world mentality. They abusively approached the stigma of being decreed a “mid-major”, demanding respect with a cold scowl imprinted on their face. In four years at Xavier, I cannot recall a single moment where I caught even the briefest of smiles slip over Tu Holloway’s face.

However, a byproduct of Xavier’s summer of transformation was a new attitude adopted by this year’s team, resulting in, as Xavier blog Banners on the Parkway phrased it, an Era of Good Feelings. With scant expectations and a bevy of opportunity for everybody who survived the offseason’s turmoil, there was reason to be optimistic. Every player on the team has a bigger role than they had last year, from Jeff Robinson’s ascension to the starting lineup to Dee Davis’ adoption of the team leader role. Those two players stole the show on Tuesday afternoon at the Cintas Center, an impressive distinction given how dominating the Musketeers looked in their 62-47 victory.

Brad Redford continues his hot streak to start the year, now shooting an ungodly 82% on the year from three-point range and Travis Taylor flashed an array of post moves and an improved physique. But perhaps most importantly, Jeff Robinson looks transformed. More than anything, he is playing more confidently so far this season (admittedly after only two games), flaunting a jump shot and, perhaps more importantly, sticking to it after a pair of ugly misses. Justin Martin, while still enigmatic and seemingly capable of so much more on the offensive end, is still growing in confidence with each game, slowly growing into his role as a lynchpin.

It all centers back to the point guard, however.

Dee Davis seems to simply be another in a long line of ferocious, if undersized, Xavier guards. Quick as a bullet and with an improving jump shot and serious defensive chops. However, he’s as good-natured as Holloway was deadly serious, enjoying himself on the court and generally giving off good vibes. This isn’t to say Holloway was a bad teammate; the dude was a killer on the court, all of his teammates respected the hell out of him and he was a legitimate leader. But mistakes were met with glares, something the jovial and perhaps a touch aloof Jeff Robinson appeared flustered by at times. Obviously, three years of development at a major program (see what I did there) has aided Robinson’s confidence as well, and perhaps it’s just early season euphoria given the unexpectedly good start (which has been even better than I could have imagined and I predicted them to make the NCAA’s) but the vibe feels different.

This team is certainly not as talented as recent Xavier squads, but they seem to truly enjoy playing together. The ball movement displayed in the first two games is the best of any Xavier team in years and the team defense on Tuesday afternoon was absolutely superb. Dee Davis was primarily responsible for shutting down Butler’s best offensive weapon, Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke who possess a shot deadlier than even Redford’s, but there was simply nothing the Bulldogs ran which was successful against the Musketeers. Slashers were bumped, switches were made seamlessly, rebounds were tidily hauled in. It was as impressive of a team performance as a Musketeers team has put forth during Chris Mack’s tenure as the head coach.

While admittedly conjecture, it appears this team has bonded over the collective writing-off conducted by the college basketball media prior to the season. They seem to truly be one cohesive unit, a team full of people who legitimately enjoy being around one another and subsequently communicate exceptionally well on the floor and, thus far, have reaped the benefits. The general lack of star power will eventually limit this team’s potential, although I still believe Semaj Christon is capable of ascending to that level by the end of the season, but right now this team is an absolute joy to watch.

Expectations be damned, this Xavier team is good.

Follow Cory Brennamen on Twitter @CoryBrennamen