"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

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Xavier Preview, 2022-23

Xavier Musketeers

Head Coach: Sean Miller (120-47 at Xavier, 422-156 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 48.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 54.7

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 20

Projected Starters: PG Souley Boum (6'3" RS Sr), SG Adam Kunkel (6'4" RS Jr), SF Colby Jones (6'6" Jr), PF Zach Freemantle (6'9" Sr), C Jack Nunge (7'0" RS Sr)

It's Jones on Jones as Xavier's Colby lifts a floater over Marquette's Kam

Photo by Katie Stratman | USA Today Sports

2021-22 was the best of times and worst of times for Travis Steele and the Xavier Musketeers. They opened the season 11-1, and pushed that to 14-3 and a #17 AP Poll ranking despite a tough pair of losses to Villanova. Then the cracks started to show. They alternated winning two, losing two, winning two, and losing two before notching a win over UConn that had them 7-6 and still looking like a comfortable NCAA team. Then it all fell apart as Xavier lost 5 straight, managing only a win over Georgetown before bowing out to lowly Butler in the Big East Tournament opener. Steele found himself four years into his tenure with zero NCAA appearances. After struggling with Cleveland State in the first round of the NIT Tournament, Steele was fired. Typically, that would end the story, but Xavier played on, led by assistant Jonas Hayes, who was a perfect 4-0 en route to a NIT title when they defeated St. Bonaventure and Texas A&M at Madison Square Garden. That run landed Hayes the Georgia State job, as the back court trio of Paul Scruggs, Nate Johnson, and Dwon Odom all left.

If not for Jay Wright's retirement, Sean Miller's return to Xavier was the story of the offseason. In his first stint at Xavier, Miller went to four straight NCAA Tournaments with trips to the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen. He left for Arizona, where he had five second-weekend runs with the Wildcats, going to two Sweet Sixteens and three Elite Eights. Despite being involved in the ongoing FBI cases, Miller is regarded as an elite recruiter and game coach. In his seventeen seasons as a head coach, he's had nine teams finish in kenpom's top-20 and two of those were top-5 teams. He returns to Xavier with a talented roster. That starts in the front court, where Jack Nunge and Colby Jones were both preseason All-Big East selections. Nunge blossomed at Xavier, posting career highs in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and three-point percentage while having the lowest returning turnover rate of any player in the league. He's a viable Big East Player of the Year candidate, alongside obvious contenders like Adama Sanogo and Ryan Kalkbrenner, and also one of his teammates. Jones hit his apex in the NIT, averaging 14.8 ppg/6.0 rpg/4.4 apg while winning MVP of the NIT. Also in the front court is Zach Freemantle, who had a bit of a down year after his brilliant 16.1 ppg/8.9 rpg season in 2020-21. Freemantle had some off-the-court issues this summer, but it sounds like those were quickly resolved. If there are any questions, they are in the back court. UTEP transfer Souley Boum is expected to man the point. He was more of a combo guard at his last stop, but can create shots for himself and thrives both from the perimeter and attacking the rim. Adam Kunkel will likely be the other starter. He was a star at Belmont, but has been more of a rotation player with the ability to occasionally go off for big scoring nights. The first two off the bench are expected to be freshmen Desmond Claude and Kam Craft. Both project as shooting wings, with Claude considered the more skilled of the two and a possible point guard option if Boum isn't up to the task. There have been quiet raves about Claude as a future NBA player, so keep an eye on him as a possible All-Freshmen honoree if given the chance. In the front court, keep an eye on Dieonte Miles and former Indiana transfer Jerome Hunter, both of whom are expected to get minutes in multiple big man sets.

Offensively, this team has the potential to be devastating. All five starters can score from deep, they are all sure-handed with the ball, and Nunge/Freemantle/Jones might be the best offensive rebounding trio in the league. Miller's teams thrive at applying pressure, attacking inside, scoring, and getting to the line. His teams are often reticent to take threes, but when he has shooters his offenses tend to be elite, and this team has shooters. On defense, Miller has historically run pack line. His best defenses have multiple shot blockers (like Nunge and Freemantle), clog the interior, and try to bully opponents on the glass.

In terms of proven talent, Xavier deserves to be considered one of the favorites to win the Big East. Miller is a fantastic coach, he has a pair of bigs that have demonstrated high-level production, and a potential breakout star in Jones. But there are also question marks. Who will get the ball to the bigs? There might not be a true point guard on the roster and this team will need to get it inside. Defensively, can Freemantle and Nunge coexist? While both have the size and ability to be a defensive backstop, neither are the quick-footed type to get out on shooters when the opponent has forwards that stretch the floor. An inability to answer questions like these are the reason Travis Steele lost his job. And while Miller's best teams have been elite, he's had issues when his guards don't share the ball enough and there's big man overlap. The floor for this team should be the NCAA Tournament. They are simply too talented and Miller too good to miss. That said, they have been struggling in their preseason play, losing to Vanderbilt in a scrimmage and struggling with Kentucky Wesleyan in an exhibition. That could be working kinks out or it could be signs that the roster construction issues aren't a one-year fix. But if they can figure out how to get the ball inside and Miller can put out two-big lineups that work on the defensive end, this team is a threat to win the Big East and make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Don't sleep on Xavier, if it all comes together, they are the team to beat in the Big East.

Marquette Memory: Two overtime losses for Marquette form interesting bookends. George Thompson scored 41 points on February 26, 1968, in an 88-83 loss at Xavier. On February 22, 1984, Xavier again defeated Marquette in overtime, this time 82-68. In between Marquette went on an incredible 26-game winning streak over the Musketeers. Not only was the streak impressive, but Marquette won those games by an average of 18.8 points per game, with none of the contests closer than an 8-point margin. That streak is the second longest winning streak over a single opponent in Marquette history, exceeded only by the ongoing 39-0 mark Marquette has against UW-Milwaukee.

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