"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

Friday, October 13, 2023

Xavier Preview, 2023-24

Xavier Musketeers

February 25, 2024 at Fiserv Forum and March 9, 2024 at Cintas Center

Head Coach: Sean Miller (449-166 overall, 147-57 at Xavier)

Three-Year NET Average: 40.3

Three-Year kenpom Average: 44.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 57

Projected Starters: PG Dayvion McKnight (6'1" Sr), SG Quincy Olivari (6'3" 5th), SF Desmond Claude (6'5" So), PF Gytas Nemeiksa (6'7" Fr), C Abou Ousmane (6'10" Sr)

Desmond Claude is expected to be the leading returning scorer for Xavier
Photo by Kareem Elgazzar | Cincinnati Enquirer

Optimism rose when Sean Miller returned to his roots at Xavier, and he delivered in his first year back. An 11-game winning streak brought the Musketeers all the way up to #8 in the AP Poll and established them as the early favorites in the Big East. However tough losses at DePaul and Butler relegated them to second place in the league while an injury to Zach Freemantle lowered their ceiling. They rebounded to reach the Big East Tournament title game and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017. However they lost four starters that also represented four of the top five scorers. In addition, the two leading returning scorers, Zach Freemantle and Jerome Hunter, could both miss the entire 2022-23 season with injuries. Not only that, but Indiana transfer big man Logan Duncomb has stepped away from the program due to persistent injuries.
Last year Miller had great success with C-USA transfer Souley Boum. It worked so well that he brought in three new C-USA transfers, all of whom are expected to start. Dayvion McKnight averaged 16.5 ppg/3.8 apg for Western Kentucky last year. He's a guard that prefers to get downhill, attacking the rim, converting, and getting to the free throw line. McKnight is only an average shooter from deep, though, and rarely takes shots beyond the arc (averaged 1.6 3PFGA/game last year). Quincy Olivari is another C-USA transfer from Rice. He's a more versatile scorer than McKnight and is an excellent rebounding guard. If the Freemantle/Hunter reports are accurate, Desmond Claude is the only returning Musketeer to average more than 20 mpg last year. He's an athletic wing with high upside, but will need to take a big step up to be a leader for this team. Gytas Nemeiksa is listed as a freshman, but played club basketball in Lithuania and is more like a grad transfer in terms of experience. The last C-USA transfer is Abou Ousmane. He's coming off an NIT title with North Texas and looks like the most Big East-ready of the transfers. Ousmane is physical, controls the glass, and is a solid rim protector. Off the bench, they have very little experience, with sparsely used Kam Craft likely the first man off the bench. Xavier also has a solid crop of freshmen recruits. Trey Green will help spell both guard positions, Reid Ducharme provides a shooter off the bench, and Dailyn Swain will likely compete for front court minutes and could even be a surprise starter if Nemeiksa isn't up to manning the front court. Another pair of overseas freshmen could contribute as well, with Lazar Djokovic and Kachi Nzeh both being possible depth needs up front where the offseason has ravaged Xavier's depth.

Miller's arrival was transformational for Xavier's offense. His teams excel at turning up the pace, moving the ball, and getting shots in good position. Five of his top-six rotational players all had career highs in eFG%. Xavier was also lethal beyond the arc, though they didn't take many threes. He preferred to use slashing wings and guards to penetrate and the bigs on the interior attacked the glass and cleaned up the mess. Like Marquette and Villanova, Xavier is more focused on concepts than set plays, which is what allowed Souley Boum to thrive, but they do so with a downhill interior attack prioritized over a long-range assault. Defensively, Miller has preferred to run pack line in the past, but it was difficult last year because while he had Nunge in the middle, Freemantle didn't have the quickness to keep up with Big East wings. His injury gave more minutes to Jerome Hunter and the defense improved. Miller talked about going away from the Pack Line when he took over, but those precepts are still there. It's a man to man defense that sags back to prevent teams from getting to the rim. This allows them to reduce drives into the paint and control the glass. At least, in theory that's what it should do. Last year Xavier just wasn't a great defensive team. Per Torvik, with Freemantle in the rotation Xavier's defense ranked #109, but after his injury they ranked #53 to the end of the year. That is a more respectable number, but still not great.

It's hard to project success for Xavier this year. With a healthy Freemantle and Hunter, maybe there's enough there to push for an NCAA bid. Instead, Miller is really going all-in on the C-USA transfers. In addition, while Souley Boum (+13.5 adjusted points/100 possessions) was an obvious huge value add at UTEP before he joined Xavier, that isn't the case for McKnight (+5.6), Olivari (-2.4), or Ousmane (-2.9). And while Claude and Craft were highly regarded recruits, there wasn't a lot there as freshmen to indicate they are ready to lead a team to the heights Xavier fans are hoping for. Add in a thin bench and it's hard to see this team contending for an NCAA bid unless a few players really overachieve.

One Man's Opinion: Xavier comes in at #7 in my Big East rankings. It really just comes down to those injuries. Without Freemantle's rebounding, without Hunter's defense, there just isn't enough in the front court and not enough depth to trust this team. Further, as good as Souley Boum was last year, it's hard to imagine that every C-USA transfer Miller plucked is going to have similar success. I expect Xavier will miss the tournament, but the heavy minutes will benefit Claude and Craft, being in the rotation will help a solid freshmen class, and if they can get another year out of McKnight and Ousmane, there's a bright future in Cincinnati, even if it's not this year.

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