"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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Xavier Preview

Xavier Musketeers
January 15, fiserv.forum; January 29, Cintas Center, Cincinnati OH
Coach: Travis Steele (19-16)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 35.7
3-Year kenpom Average: 37.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 37

Projected Starters: PG Quinton Goodin (6'4" Sr), SG Paul Scruggs (6'3" Jr), SF Naji Marshall (6'7" Jr), PF Jason Carter (6'8" Jr), C Tyrique Jones (6'9" Sr)

It was a rough start for new head coach Travis Steele, who was staring at a losing overall record and 6-game Big East losing streak on February 9. The Musketeers rallied to win 7 of their next 8 and were only denied a spot in the Big East Tournament title game when eventual champion Villanova rallied from 7 down with under 4:00 to play to force overtime and knock them out in the semifinal. Xavier was invited to the NIT, where they also lost in overtime to the eventual champion, Texas.

Hope is blossoming in Cincinnati. While they did lose three graduate transfers, they return the core of last year's team. Marshall, Scruggs, Goodin, and Jones all averaged double-digit scoring. Marshall is the presumed leader, moving down to the small forward position thanks to the physical presence of grad transfer Jason Carter (who has two years eligibility). Marshall is a multi-talented player that can put up big raw numbers, but has issues with turning the ball over and isn't a particularly good shooter. Scruggs and Goodin are both capable backcourt options, but while both have shown flashes, at least one needs to step up as a reliable second scorer. Jones is the most efficient of them, largely because of his ability to dominate on the offensive glass. The rest of the roster is a question mark. Carter and fellow grad transfer Bryce Moore both have experience, but have to make the step up from bottom of the MAC teams as both finished last in their divisions last year, Carter at Ohio and Moore at Western Michigan. The rest of the roster is freshmen. Of those, expect to see dynamic scoring guard KyKy Tandy and big man Zach Freemantle the most. Tandy offers a downhill attacking ability while Freemantle is expected to be the main front court backup.

Steele was the architect of the Chris Mack offense. While Steele, like many coaches, preached pushing the pace in his early interviews, his actions were the opposite. At their best, Mack's teams spread the floor out with multiple wings and are aggressive attacking toward the basket. This allows them to get to the line and take advantage of stalwart big men like Jones cleaning up the glass. On their face, this team has the roster to do that, with a variety of long players able to play on the perimeter and drive downhill, but Steele played at the slowest pace of any Xavier team since the shot clock was shortened to 30 and the lowest tempo ranking (302) of any Xavier team in the advanced stats era. Defensively, Steele has proven malleable. He often employed a zone last year to try to keep sharpshooter Ryan Welage on the floor, as he was a complete defensive liability. Expect more man this year, though I'll need to see more to be convinced Xavier's defensive strategy is anachronistic. Under both Steele and Mack, their best asset is on the defensive glass. They don't do enough to challenge shots and don't create the turnovers and transition chances Steele talked about when hired. They also allow teams to take and make too many threes while not having the ability to counter that on the offensive end.

I want to like this Xavier team, but there's a lot to clean up for them to be a Big East contender. Their three primary ball-handlers all had turnover rates north of 21% (think Joey Hauser, only at PG, SG, and SF). They were an anemic three-point shooting team and lost their best shooter. And despite having length all over the floor, they don't turn teams over. To be clear, Steele had a tough job, taking over for a great coach and having to replace four seniors, including Trevon Blueitt and J.P. Macura. But currently, there's no clear leader (six players averaged 18+ mpg and 20+% usage last year) and it's hard to see what this team's identity will be. They have a favorable non-conference schedule that has their toughest games (Missouri & Cincinnati) at home with winnable road games (at Wake Forest & TCU) and a non-con tournament where they should be able to get at least 2 wins. I expect Xavier to start strong, but once Big East play starts, I think this team comes back down to earth and finishes around the middle of the pack. They have enough talent to get to the NCAA Tournament, but not enough of a clear identity to be a true contender.

Marquette Memory: Xavier was ranked #6 in the country and on their way to a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament when they opened Big East play at the Bradley Center. Andrew Rowsey led the way in a back-and-forth affair. A Jamal Cain three put Marquette ahead with 10 minutes to play, but a 14-4 run put Xavier in the driver's seat. Marquette did manage to tie it once again, at 80, but cold shooting at the arc from Markus Howard (1/8 from three) likely doomed them in their failed upset bid as the Musketeers left the BC with a 91-87 victory. In a season where Marquette went 0-6 against teams that finished on the top two seed lines, that was maybe their best shot at a resume-affirming win as they instead had to settle for the NIT.

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