CINCINNATI -- The philosophy of Xavier’s men’s basketball team is to focus on goals set in the locker room, block out outside noise and leave a previous season’s accolade in the past.
But the Musketeers aren’t exactly starting from scratch as they embark on the program’s 95th season.
Anchored by returning scoring leader Trevon Bluiett (15.1 ppg), high-flying point guard Edmond Sumner and the scrappy J.P. Macura, Xavier is ranked a program-best No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 and a program-high No. 8 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll.
Throw in a No. 2 rank in the preseason Big East poll and it’s clear that others see something special in a group that went 28-6 (14-4 Big East) and set multiple records a year ago.
How players handle the attention will be interesting to see.
“I think it will be a telltale sign of how mature this group is,” coach Chris Mack said. “I do think we have some older players, some guys that were freshmen just a few years ago, that are used to having a business-like attitude. They come to practice every single day wanting to get better and knowing where we need to get better. I don’t worry about the attention.”
Here are nine storylines to watch as the season unfolds:
1-Will Myles Davis be back? The story, by now, is well documented. The 6-foot-2 senior guard is facing two misdemeanor criminal damaging charges related to a former girlfriend and has been indefinitely suspended from Xavier’s program since September. As of this writing, the legal issues remain unresolved and Davis’ return to the team is undetermined. Mack said Davis has an opportunity to return but that date is, for now, nebulous. Could it be Dec. 17, the day after fall semester ends? Or Jan. 9, the first day of spring semester? What’s more, will Davis be in tip-top shape? While his situation creates more questions than answers, Davis certainly would be an asset as an expert on Xavier’s system, a contributor and a vocal leader.
2-Let’s talk about depth. Soon after last season’s end, Jalen Reynolds graduated and left a year of eligibility on the table to pursue professional basketball opportunities. Xavier’s coaching staff had planned for that decision and recruited accordingly. Then this summer, when Eddie Ekiyor chose to return to Canada to attend college, the staff quickly brought in a rare grad transfer in Malcolm Bernard. But there was no way to circumvent Davis’ legal woes or Kaiser Gates’ left knee scope -- a surgical procedure that could keep him out for the first month of the season -- so XU for now is rather thin. Counting walk-on turned scholarship player Tim Stainbrook, Mack has nine healthy scholarship players for the opener. That may be all they need, but they certainly don’t want less.
3-What is the impact of a healthy Kaiser Gates? The 6-foot-8 forward may be one of the most interesting studies, simply based on his ability to come on strong at the end of Xavier’s last campaign. Gates averaged 4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 11.6 minutes in the last five games alone (and 3.2 points and 2.6 board throughout). The rangy forward is a unique talent with an outside shot that stretches defenses, and the trio of 3-pointers he made March 5 helped sink Creighton in the regular-season finale at Cintas Center. Strength and conditioning coach Matt Jennings said Gates was diligent in the weight room over the summer, but the player’s efforts were derailed by knee discomfort caused by small pieces of cartilage.
4-Who’s going to rebound? It was one of the most frequent questions Mack fielded at Big East media day: How will Xavier replace the 14.3 rebounds per game provided last season by James Farr and Jalen Reynolds? Quite simply, it’s other players’ time to shine. The principles of Xavier’s program remain the same, and the rebounding mantle has been passed to frontcourt players like RaShid Gaston, Sean O’Mara and Tyrique Jones. Don’t forget Trevon Bluiett is the team’s top returning rebounder (6.1 rpg) and patrolling the glass is one of Malcolm Bernard’s specialties. The 6-6 guard averaged a team-high 7.1 rebounds last season at Florida A&M. It’s time to see who steps up, and it may be by committee. “We have an opportunity to be a really good rebounding team,” Mack said.
5-Who’s new this year? There are four newcomers to the program but only two are freshmen. Six-foot-nine forward RaShid Gaston sat out last season after transferring from Norfolk State and has one season of eligibility left. His assets are his physical strength and toughness as well as scoring close to the basket and rebounding. Bernard, the Florida A&M grad transfer, also is playing in his final season. He will take open shots but excels in driving and finishing with either hand. The freshmen -- 6-9 forward Tyrique Jones and 6-4 guard Quentin Goodin -- arrived on campus with impressive resumes and college-ready bodies.
6-Edmond Sumner is the real deal. Sumner’s talent has landed him on the radar of NBA scouts, so only time will tell if this is his last season in a Xavier uniform. All you have to do see video of the Musketeer Madness dunk contest to understand the athleticism and rare air commanded by the 6-6 point guard, who last season averaged a team-second 11 points with 1.3 steals. He missed three games due to the nasty fall he took at Villanova and subsequent concussion. Staying healthy will be key, but Sumner’s size makes him difficult to defend and his ability to plunge through the lane or dish creates major headaches for opponents. Mack wants him to maximize his playmaking decisions. “We still want him to be fearless. We want him to get to the basket and get into the lane and when he does that, I think you’ll see a guy that makes better decisions,” Mack said.
7-How has Trevon Bluiett implemented feedback from NBA scouts? After last season’s end, Bluiett tested the NBA draft waters without hiring an agent in order to gauge his professional prospects. Bluiett streamlined his physique by shedding about 15 pounds and said he plans to maintain that weight, which enhances his speed and endurance and alleviates pressure on his knees. Said Mack: “There were times a year ago that Tre played at 215, 217 pounds. The other day he sort of joked, ‘Coach, do I need to start putting on weight? Because I’m 194 pounds.’ I said, ‘No. You’re good right there as long as you maintain your strength.’” Bluiett also wants to work on his ball-handling skills and Mack would like him to get to the rim more than he has in the past.
8-What will it take to unseat Villanova? Jay Wright’s team is the gold standard in the Big East by virtue of its dominance since the conference revamped itself in 2013 and it's national championship last season. Xavier chipped away at that veneer by downing the No. 1-ranked Wildcats in an electric 90-83 victory last February at Cintas Center. The winning formula proved to be a combination of good defense, fast-break domination, better rebounding and 50 percent shooting. Josh Hart (15.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and Kris Jenkins (13.6 ppg) are returning blue chip players on a Villanova team unanimously picked to defend its Big East title, but veteran Musketeers players are a year older and wiser, and they’re cognizant of the threats the Wildcats pose.
9-What’s the deal with the holiday tournament? Xavier was supposed to play in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan this November but Zika virus concerns forced ESPN to move the exempt event to Florida. So, on the very court where Xavier won the AdvoCare Invitational last year, the Musketeers will play in the Tire Pros Invitational at HP Field House near Orlando. Aside from the location change, the tournament is the same, including the dates (Nov. 17, 18 and 20). The Musketeers open the tournament against Missouri and face Clemson or Davidson the next day. The rest of the field includes Northern Iowa, Arizona State, Tulane and Oklahoma.
There will be more about college hoops on Friday. Shannon Russell will take a look at the nine storylines this season for the Cincinnati Bearcats men's basketball team.