"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, November 16, 2020

Xavier Preview, 2020-21

 Xavier Musketeers

Head Coach: Travis Steele (38-29)

3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 39.0

3-Year kenpom Average: 41.7

T-Rank 2020-21 Projection: 53

Paul Scruggs leads a transitioning Xavier team

Photo from The Athletic

Projected Starters: PG Paul Scruggs (6'4" Sr), SG KyKy Tandy (6'2" So), SF Nate Johnson (6'4" RS Sr), PF Jason Carter (6'8" RS Sr), C Zach Freemantle (6'9" So)

Xavier never seemed to really get settled into their 2019-20 season. An impressive non-con record (11-2) was dragged down by a loss to a bad Wake Forest team. They started Big East play disastrously, but were able to rebound from their 2-6 start to level their conference record at 8-8 before dropping their last three contests, including a loss to DePaul in the Big East Tournament (one of only two completed games). Departing from that team were star scorer Naji Marshall, seventh year senior Tyrique Jones (at least it felt that way), and starting point guard Quentin Goodin, leaving the Musketeers in flux.

On paper, there seems to be experience on this team, but much of it was accrued at other programs. While they have three senior starters, only Scruggs has been at Xavier the entire time. Johnson was an efficient scorer for Gardner-Webb, but did so against primarily Big South competition. Carter was a solid but unspectacular quality role-player in the front court. Tandy and Freemantle will be hoping to take big steps forward as their minutes go up. If anyone in the back court fails, freshman Dwon Odom will likely be the first option to seize minutes. He's regarded as the point guard of the future and will be expected to contribute immediately. A trio of transfers may also be worth watching. Bryan Griffin is a physical big who up-transferred from Division II. Adam Kunkel (Belmont) and Ben Stanley (Hampton) were both productive scorers, albeit at lower levels, but have yet to receive waivers to play this season. If they aren't available, expect Steele to dig deeper into his top-25 recruiting class as both CJ Wilcher and Colby Jones are wings that could be called on early if the depth isn't adequate.

***Update: Stanley's waiver was denied and he will have to sit out this season.***

Calling Xavier's offenses under Steele mediocre might be generous. His teams have been terrible shooting both from deep and at the line. Whereas Chris Mack was able to adjust his tempos to fit his team and seemed to constantly have top-30 offenses, Steele's teams haven't matched that. Part of that was because of Naji Marshall, who was their highest usage player each of the past two years despite being consistently inefficient. In the past, Scruggs has shown tendencies to defer to other players, so my guess for the guy the offense will run through is Tandy, who improved his efficiency in conference play and flashed the ability to take over games. Steele looks to score inside first, though that could be because of their inept shooting the past two years. If Johnson and Kunkel can't shore up the outside shooting, look for Griffin to be cast in the Tyrique Jones role. He led Division 2 in rebounding last year and should be a stronger interior presence than the other Xavier big men. Defense was Xavier's calling card last year largely because they challenged everything well. They have shotblocking inside and they will look for Griffin to take over Jones' rebounding to limit second attempts.

Since the mid-1980s, Xavier has been defined by a string of quality coaches. From Pete Gillen to Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, Musky fans have become accustomed to having quality young coaches that elevated their program before leaving for bigger destinations. It's still early, but I'm not convinced Steele will continue that trend. This looks like a third consecutive year where Xavier fails to inspire. Unless Scruggs, Tandy, or Freemantle can make a star turn, there simply isn't enough here. The rest of the roster is cobbled together from the mid and low major ranks mixed with freshmen. They will need a couple players to really hit big if they want to be in the mix for a NCAA berth. They will likely scrap their way to some victories, but look to have more a NIT than NCAA profile.

Marquette Memory: The first time Marquette faced Xavier was a banner occasion for new head coach Ed Hickey. It was December 22, 1958 when the 8th-ranked Musketeers took on Marquette at the Milwaukee Arena. Xavier was undefeated and coming off a NIT Championship the previous season, but it was Marquette's fast break that won the night. Mike Moran led the way with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Hickey praised his performance, saying "When the biggest guy on the team winds up in the front of the fast break time and again, makes the longest trip back on defense and then is out in front again going down, there's only one word for it and that's hustle." Hickey led Marquette to the NCAA Tournament and a Sweet 16 appearance that year, and added another victory over Xavier along the way, defeating them in Cincinnati on February 21, 1959.

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