CINCINNATI - They are not who we thought they were.
The Xavier Musketeers new look has proven quite effective in their first two games, scoring the most points in a game since 1989 in their 117-75 victory over Farleigh Dickinson and most recently beating a decent Butler team handily Tuesday night during ESPN's college basketball tip-off marathon, 62-47.
The key? The team-work.
In the 2011-12 season that brought the Musketeers to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, they averaged a mere 13 assists per game and shot 46 percent from the field. Through the first two games, Xavier is averaging 20 assists per game, assists that are setting up better opportunities and leading the Muskies to shoot 62 percent from the field in the first two games.
The jump in assists can be explained by the lack of an individual play-maker, but it proves that XU knows well the squad they're putting on the floor each game, and that the work Chris Mack and the coaching staff did in the offseason is paying off.
Not just a jump in team offense, the team defense has been incredible through two games, more notably against two of the best 3-point shooters in the NCAA this year, Butler's Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham.
Butler couldn't buy a step toward the basket from the perimeter, with XU hands in their face on every outside shot, all thanks to an efficient transition of defensive assignments among the five Musketeers on the court (Xavier held Butler to just 37 percent shooting from the field). There are several good 1-on-1 defenders on this squad in Dee Davis and Semaj Christon, but the way this team as a whole has played off screens and pick and rolls is art in motion.
Speaking of Dee Davis and Semaj Christon, those two stood out as the new leaders of this team.
As I said in my season preview , Davis' defensive prowess was known, and he's continued to improve on that, but Davis was by no means a seasoned point guard coming in to this year. But through two games, his ability to get to the basket has seemingly grown 10-fold since last season (15.5 points per game, 8.5 assists per game thus far). He's getting by defenders with ease, and he has the confidence and the court sense to make the right decision in whether to shoot or pass, which was the biggest concern weighed on him as this team's floor general.
And Christon, who chalked up 8 assists in his Xavier debut Tuesday night, proved he'll be more than just a scorer for this team. Christon's hype was his ability to get the basket, but he kept his head up last night and found the right jerseys consistently. Christon did record 5 turnovers, but he did so many more good things than bad that nerves are the best explanation for any mistakes he did make (which were few and far between).
The biggest surprise, and a pleasant one at that, has been Jeff Robinson (16.5 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game through two games). His mid-range jumper has vastly improved. He has gained the confidence to take the 3-point shot. He's more aggressive around the basket. If Robinson is consistently as ferocious as he has been in the Musketeers' first two games, he'll be a candidate for A-10 Player of the Year.
Also showing up with more tenacity this year is Travis Taylor. What were a pair of flailing, lanky arms last year have become strong, active arms this year. Taylor has pulled down 9 and 12 rebounds in the first two games, which is what he is built for, but his scoring has come around so far this season also, dropping 15 and 20 points in the first two games respectively. His offensive production is an unexpected gift that grows the arsenal of weapons XU can go to when in need of some points on this newly-meshing squad.
The final piece of the new Xavier puzzle that will make this year a successful one is the return of the real Brad Redford. Improved defensive positioning adds to Redford's 2010 self (prior to the ACL tear), but starting the season 9-11 from 3-point range puts him at a whole new level of efficient. Bringing Redford in effectively opens up Xavier's offense, and allows XU's athletic front-court to get the room they need to move and make the easy baskets. Then again, at the rate Redford is shooting, those 3-pointers look like easy baskets too.
Depth was a major concern for the Muskies when this season got underway, but with the way forward Erik Stenger has played on both sides of the ball, James Farr's presence from both underneath the basket and from outside, and Justin Martin's showing of a little-bit-of-everything may put that issue to rest (10.5 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game, 3 assists per game and 1 steal per game).
Whether it was a little kumbaya at a 3-day retreat at Camp Kerns up north or just a lot of quality practice, this squad got to know their strengths and weaknesses in the offseason, and thus far have capitalized on the positives and minimized the negatives, translating to great, fundamental basketball.
While there is a lot yet to be seen, like how XU's defense