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In Season of Change, Xavier Musketeers Will Surprise Critics

xavier nation flagI’ll just go ahead and say it:

The Xavier Musketeers will make the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

I’m probably delusional. Probably just wishing. Probably making myself out to be an idiot my very first day on the job here at www.CincyUnscripted.com.

Scratch that, definitely making myself out to be an idiot.

But I can’t quite shake the feeling. Even before watching Xavier slowly wear away at a woefully undersized Kentucky State Thoroughbred team, I felt this team was underrated. Maybe even severely so. They were picked to finish 9th in the Atlantic 10, the same conference where they had won five (FIVE!) years in a row before last season. CollegeBasketballTalk slotted them 10th. Nearly everything I’ve read pegs them as a .500 team at best. Even Xavier fanatics have seemed to entirely dismiss the idea of reaching the NCAA’s, hoping to make one of the lesser tournaments instead. However, the towel has been thrown in too quickly for my liking.

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 Xavier’s made the NCAA Tournament eleven of the past twelve years, a feat accomplished by only seven other schools. For lack of a better term, they’ve been part of college basketball’s second tier over that time span; not up to par with the true heavyweights like Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky but as consistent as anybody else in the country. They don’t just meekly show up in your bracket and bow out, either: over the same 12-year span they are tied with Pittsburgh for the most wins (15) of any team without a Final Four appearance.

Of course, this team isn’t like the past couple Xavier squads. Hardly any team of recent Xavier memory, really. Gone are Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease to graduation. Gone is Mark Lyons to the greener pastures of Arizona (metaphorically, of course, nothing is green in arid Arizona).

It was going to be a bit of a rebuilding year, but at least there still was Dez Wells.

Bam!

Despite the questionable nature of the charges held against him, and a complete exoneration by the authorities, Wells was expelled from Xavier University for some form of sexual harassment. But at least there was still that promising class of freshmen.

Boom!

Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds, two crucial members of the Class of 2016, were ruled ineligible for the season. This incessant trail of departures has left the Musketeers with just eight scholarship players for the season. Their leading returning scorer is Travis Taylor, who averaged 4.5 ppg last season. They started a walk-on, Erik Stenger, in their exhibition victory over Kentucky State.

And yet, they will make the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s why:

  •  Size, size and more size: There is not a single dominant player on Xavier’s front line. Hell, there isn’t a single player whom is dangerous in the low block one-on-one. But they have five guys standing 6’8” or taller capable of playing defense, pounding the glass and a couple of them even understand how to put the ball in the basket. The work down low will truly be done by committee but Isaiah Philmore (who is suspended the first three games of the season as the cherry on top of the delicious offseason in Norwood) has a chance to stick out. Travis Taylor has all the tools, if a persistent foul problem as well. Jeff Robinson, after four long years of development, should become the defensive leader of this team and will probably throw down a couple of highlight reel dunks along the way. But the two key guys are Stenger and freshman James Farr, the sort of players that will set Xavier apart from their Atlantic 10 competition. Stenger is the ultimate dirty work player but is also underrated offensively, possessing a decent jump shot and solid offensive rebounding skills. Farr, crucially, can shoot from the perimeter, providing much-needed spacing and serving as a counterweight to the rest of the jumpshot-deficient frontline.

 

  • Christon Semaj: I’m a sucker for Semaj already. I’ve heard about him for so long it feels like it’s his third year at Xavier and, frankly, he plays like a veteran. He’s a bit jumper heavy still but that should improve as the season goes on and man is he smooth. Everything looks like it comes so slow to Christon, like he’s always in complete control. He will certainly have a slew of freshman moments and is likely being asked far too much for a kid who just turned 20. But he’s a player in the star mold, capable of creating offense by himself and generating good looks for his teammates. With Wells still on the team, Christon would have served as a perfect second option; he’ll be stretched as the ace in the hole but he’ll grow into the role and, come conference play, he’ll be a contender for A-10 Newcomer of the Year.

 

  • The X-Factor: Ultimately, no matter how true the two preceding points are, Xavier’s season will likely come down to one man: Justin Martin. Martin is incredibly talented and, in order for the offense to truly function with so much defense/rebounding dreg down low, a necessity on the floor for long stretches. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t have the longest history of giving max effort and is incredibly inconsistent defensively, which subsequently cuts into his playing time. If Martin can earn court time from Coach Mack, Xavier’s offense will run much smoother, particularly if Martin starts to (finally) hit some of the open shots he’s received his entire time in Cincinnati. I’m personally expecting a breakout season from him, with solid percentage numbers from behind the arc and a reinvigorated attitude on defense.

 

  • Dee Davis and Brad Redford: Dee Davis looked pretty great against Kentucky State. He’s a feisty on-ball defender who is adept at finding his way into the lane and dishing to the open man, a skill which will be necessary given the limited offensive capabilities of Xavier’s bigs. As long as he hits enough perimeter looks to prevent defenders from sagging off he will be a solid asset and a worthy starting point guard. Redford’s shot has never been his problem, it’s just everything else that makes you cringe. He tries hard on D but just doesn’t possess enough athleticism, especially following his ACL tear, to effectively guard D-1 athletes. Still, as long as he receives relatively limited action (I’m expecting 12-15 minutes a game) he’ll be an asset to a team otherwise incredibly deficient on long-range shooting.

 

  • Lineup Creativity: Most importantly, though, the sheer number of competent big men allows Chris Mack to truly fiddle with lineups. If he consistently trots out a typical lineup of two guards, two forwards and a swingman Xavier will often be outmatched against the better teams in an incredibly competitive Atlantic 10. However, he’s afforded numerous lineup options with the roster he has, despite only possessing eight scholarship players. He could play Justin Martin at the 4 for stretches and go small with Davis/Christon/Redford, even adding Farr at the 5 to have five legitimate shooters on the floor at once. He could, and likely often will, trend the other way and go super big, playing Martin at the 2 and picking any three of the big men, likely including Philmore as he’s the most capable of playing the 3. Mack should use the majority of the non-conference to play with different combinations and determine which work the best (the lack of in-game trial is the worst aspect of Philmore’s three-game suspension) because, unlike in past years, Mack will not be able to merely hand the ball to the trustworthy hands of Jordan Crawford, Tu Holloway or Mark Lyons and ask them to create offense.

In order for Xavier to have a truly successful season and reach the NCAA Tournament, and for my prediction to come true, a lot of things must go right. At least one of the big men–again my money’s on Philmore–will have to emerge as a legitimate offensive threat in the post, Semaj will have to play well beyond the level of a typical freshman, Justin Martin will have to transform defensively and deliver on his offensive promise, Dee Davis will have to take a big step forward and Chris Mack will have to coach his ass off.

Asking for two of those things is optimistic; asking for all five is downright insane.

But, eleven of the past twelve years, Xavier’s figured out a way to get it done. Struggles will assuredly happen, particularly out of the gate as the team still gets accustomed to one another, and in an incredibly deep and tough Atlantic 10 the Musketeers could be much better than expected and still fall short of the big dance.

But I can’t shake the feeling. Xavier has built up too much brand equity for too long under too many coaches for it all just to entirely dissipate in one abhorrent offseason. They’ll be better than expected and will pull off a big upset or two in the non-conference, whether it occurs early in Anaheim, against hated rival Cincinnati or even late in the season against the Memphis Tigers. And they’ll somehow, someway, find their way in the NCAA Tournament come March, surprising nearly everyone in the college basketball community.

Well, everyone except me.

Season Predictions

Regular Season Record: 20-10

NCAA Seed: 11