CINCINNATI - In the past decade, it's been very easy to look at any given Xavier Musketeers men's basketball squad during the pre-season and say "here are the strengths, and here are the weaknesses."
This year, those traits are not so self-evident, and as a result, there's a looming cloud of pessimism among the XU faithful. Not so fast, doubters.
With so many new faces, it definitely is hard to tell how this team will mesh, and how far they will be able to go, but indications are they may be better than their hype.
In Xavier's pre-season win against Kentucky State (74-53), they looked good on the offensive side of the ball. While their opponent was not the most stifling defensively, it wasn't all un-guarded pull-up jumpers. The Muskies moved the ball around, particularly well on the drive to the hoop, and executed easy, down-low shots, only needing to make one shot from 3-point range to win easily.
Many defenses won't allow the type of penetration XU got against the Thoroughbreds of Kentucky State, but it was a pleasant surprise to see so much fluid passing among an all-new lineup. That's a credit to head coach Chris Mack on focusing his efforts where they need to be for this team to be successful: In the guard play.
With no true leader in the backcourt, and a young Dee Davis taking over as the full time point-man, without honing the decision-making of the Musketeer guards, this season wasn't going to end well.
So what can Xavier fans expect out of this squad when they tip off the regular season Friday night at 7 p.m. against Farleigh Dickinson? Some surprises, but many unknowns.
Replacing The Experienced Backcourt
A staple of Xavier basketball in the past decade has been experienced guard-play, with men in the backcourt who know when to pass and can shoot when it's needed. Drew Lavender, Stanley Burrell, Jordan Crawford, Dante Jackson just to name a few; Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons most recently.
With the graduation of Tu, the departure of Lyons to Arizona and Dez Wells' expulsion, that left the Musketeers with only two returning guards in Dee Davis and Brad Redford.
Davis definitely got his sea legs at the end of last year, and particularly made a difference in the NCAA Tournament, but he is by no means considered a seasoned-point guard. He's always been great on the defensive side of the ball, but never had the touch when attacking the hoop. Davis will need to take on more of a pass first, shoot later attitude for the beginning of this season while the team comes together, but if he gets hot from 3-point range, he's a great asset with his quickness to potentially blow by a defender in the lane and as a result spread the floor. Davis just has to make sure he's not pulling a "Mark Lyons" and driving without a plan. Speaking of Mark Lyons...
If you aren't familiar with Xavier freshman Semaj Christon, you will be soon. At 6'3, Christon adds a few inches to a recently small Xavier backcourt, and he has the basket sense of Tu Holloway with the aggression of Lyons. Christon is a solid replacement for Lyons' scoring ability, but as a freshman, he will need some time to refine the drive-and-dish-or-shoot-through-contact method that Lyons got so good at in his last year with XU. Christon had a high shot percentage in high school, but college size and defensive pressure is a whole new ballgame that he will have to get used to working under, especially against zone defenses.
In years past, XU lived and died by the 3-point shot. That changed slightly last year, but is radically different this year. With senior guard Brad Redford getting a full, healthy year of practice in, it can be assumed his outside shooting percentage will get back up above 45 percent, close to where it had been in his first two years with Xavier, but finding the 3-ball anywhere else is hard to come by.
Davis and Christon are not to be expected to be consistent 3-point shooters, but if Davis finds a way to keep a rhythm, he could help remedy this.
Justin Martin will see a ton more playing time this year with Wells' expulsion, and is expected to step into a hybrid small forward/shooting guard role, much like B.J. Raymond of a few years ago, which calls for a good outside shot. Problem is B.J. Raymond had a much better shot. Martin has the mechanics, but not the consistency to be a reliable outside shooter. Martin was the only one to make a three-point shot against Kentucky State, but on four tries. He needs to bring his career 31.7 percent shooting from outside up to around 40 percent to truly be a contributor on this squad.
Freshman guard Myles Davis could be a remedy when a 3-point ball is needed as a very consistent-shooter in high school, but it's yet to be seen how much he'll get involved with these new-look Muskies.
The Remedy To A Lost Outside Game
The focus will be on Xavier's low-post guys for the first time in a few years, and there is some promise down low if XU doesn't isolate their big men.
Travis Taylor has the size to be a 10-point, 8-rebound guy every game, but needs to work on his touch around the basket. Jeff Robinson is the man that XU will need to get involved every trip down the hardwood. Robinson all but disappeared in the NCAA Tournament, but had showed some promise leading up to it. The key to his success is aggressiveness. Because of his smaller frame, he has to throw his body around to make his presence felt down low, and because he has good touch around the basket, if he does that, he'll increase his point total by double this year.
The Unknowns/Wild Cards
Forward Erik Stenger, an NKU transfer who now has two remaining years of eligibility at XU, has the athletic ability to make a difference, as he proved from the post in the Musketeers' pre-season game (12 points on 5-7 shooting in 23 minutes with four blocks and a couple of dunks). Stenger will face disadvantages against bigger defenses, and his nerves will be closely watched, but his ability to get up in the air with ease presents great opportunities for XU down low when they have the ball.
Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore will get his first shot in a Musketeer uniform this year, and at 6'8", 236, Philmore will be a big body to throw down low when the Musketeers need it. He'll be a good compliment to Stenger, as the two will likely see a lot of each other as the second shift to cover for Robinson and Taylor. Coach Mack says Philmore can do "a little bit of everything," which is just what the Muskies need while they find their identity this season.
Freshman forward James Farr also offers a big body at 6'9 237. As a left-handed shooter, he'll certainly get his share of points based on the way he turns toward the basket, but he's mostly a ball hock off the boards for rebounds and a presence to keep guards out of the paint on defense. Chris Mack has been quoted as saying he's got a good basketball IQ and good touch, and while Farr has been known to knock down an outside shot or two, his best basketball on the offensive side is still in front of him.
Is There A Back-Up Backcourt?
Not really. Redford and Christon will rotate, but these Musketeers will be playing big. Many times last year we saw a three-guard set with Lyons, Holloway and Dez Wells. This year will be the opposite: When Justin Martin needs a break, we'll see many sets with Robinson, Taylor and another forward that fits at the time.
There is sophomore guard Landen Amos, who thanks to the depleted backcourt this year will be known as more than just the benchwarmer who was ejected from the Crosstown Shootout. Amos does have some skill, but definitely lacks the discipline for big chunks of minutes.
The other three options: Myles Davis, the shooting choice, and two freshman walk-ons in 6'2" Joe Schuessler and 5'9" St. X grad Tim Whelan, both of whom don't bring anything specific to the bench, other than to fill some time when foul trouble comes along.
The guard situation is dire, but with the promising, young big men, Xavier may be able to compensate with the right balance of team-play.
Xavier won't be running away with any games this year against any of the normally competitive squads, and as a result they'll need to keep games close and stay ahead late with their free throw percentage. At barely 70 percent from the line last year, and a flat 64 percent in their pre-season game, the foul line is a huge concern. This has also been a part of the XU evolution over the past few years, but their most successful years came when their free throw-percentage was more around 80 percent. They best get to practice with this, or they'll see games slip through their fingers.
The Key: Team Defense
The big question mark is not the individuals on this squad, but how they play with each other, specifically on defense. If anything good came out of Mark Lyons' transfer, it was his attitude getting as far away from the Cintas Center as it could be (save Hawaii). That means this team will start fresh, together . Some of the best Xavier basketball teams were not the ones with the most talent, but the ones that played the best together. Think back to the Elite Eight team of 2007-08. The men on that team were not the most talented players that Xavier has put together over the past decade, but they played the best with each other. If Xavier can keep teams around the 65 points per game mark, they'll set themselves up for success.
What this year will really come down to is XU's competition. With so many new faces, but a similar caliber of schedule as years before, it's going to be tough to see Xavier winning 20 games. The A-10's talent overall got twice as good with the addition of VCU and Butler, and with several experienced teams on Xavier's docket, it won't be an easy conference schedule. The toss up games will be depleted teams like Vanderbilt and Purdue and if Xavier can pull out a steal win against those teams.
So hold on Musketeer fans, this year is going to be a roller coaster. I wouldn't get your hopes up for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament due to the lack of depth, but fans might be pleasantly surprised by this team's performance.
Season prediction: A finish in the top 5 of the A-10, just missing an NCAA Tournament berth.