CINCINNATI -- Xavier’s men’s basketball personnel expanded by one Sunday afternoon as senior Myles Davis returned from a lengthy suspension for his first practice of the season.
Coach Chris Mack opens most hoops practices to the media, a rarity in high major programs. In exchange for that privilege, the general rule is that reporters simply watch rather than relay information. The behind-the-scenes access is hugely beneficial in studying team chemistry as well as the Musketeers’ system.
Davis presented an uncharacteristic wrinkle. I was granted permission to write about my impressions of the 6-foot-2 guard’s return so long as I didn’t take photos, which could be distracting. It was a fair trade-off, and I took it.
So what did I think?
Davis appeared pretty physically fit, like he had been working out during his suspension. Despite rumors that he was out of shape, he looked to be not much over his roster listing of 187 pounds.
Xavier had a non-competitive practice because they played St. John’s the day before, so there’s no telling how long Davis can sustain game-level activity. But in the drills and plays he participated in, he did not stick out. His shooting was consistent, including from the free-throw line, and when he did not know something, he asked.
One of the greatest impacts of Davis’ return was the happiness it brought his teammates. Edmond Sumner, J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett were among those who joked with Davis before practice’s start, and their positive vibes seemed to energize the entire team.
Another big impact was Davis’ ability to lead the Musketeers. He was the vocal leader last season, a role he didn’t take long to reprise. When the team struggled to complete a particular drill and players grew frustrated with restarting it multiple times, Davis urged everyone to stay sharp and finish the exercise correctly.
The biggest questions that remain are how Davis fits in, minutes-wise, and whether he can tough out long stretches of high-impact activity. It would be unrealistic to think he could average 10.8 points immediately, or play anywhere near the midseason form of his teammates and opponents.
Intangibles, like Davis’ leadership and an excited locker room, could bolster the team moving forward. Xavier, in its new form, has a massive test Tuesday at Big East heavyweight Villanova.
Mack said Davis will be integrated slowly.
“He’s an experienced player who is more than willing to do what it takes for the team to win games. We’ve been a team without him for 15 games so honestly it’s a little bit new for all of us, but his heart is in the right place in wanting to win,” Mack said.
“Whether he plays one minute or 11 minutes on Tuesday, I couldn’t say. I don’t think his teammates could say. I don’t think Myles cares. The only thing we’re worried about is getting ready for one of the best teams in the country on the road.”
It probably will be an eerie experience for the Musketeers to return to The Pavilion, Villanova’s on-campus arena, where last season Sumner suffered a concussion after a hard fall early in the game.
Players surrounded Sumner as he was taken away on a stretcher, and their focus was compromised in a 31-point loss. They made up for it nearly two months later by unseating freshly-crowned No. 1 Villanova in a 90-83 victory at Cintas Center.
That was only one of five losses Villanova sustained in its national championship campaign.
The stakes couldn’t be higher in this renewal of the teams’ Big East series. Not only is it a Top 25 clash, but No. 16 Xavier (13-2, 3-0 Big East) is bidding to stay undefeated in the conference as well as maintain its grip on the top spot in the league standings.
Top-ranked Villanova (15-1, 3-1), which likely will drop from its No. 1 perch Monday due to a loss at Butler, would like nothing more than to dole out Xavier’s first conference loss. Jay Wright’s Wildcats were picked to win the regular-season conference crown in a vote of league coaches for the third straight year.
With star players Josh Hart (19.8 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game), Jalen Brunson (14.6 ppg) and Kris Jenkins (13.8 ppg) at the helm, there’s a razor-thin margin for error.
“I think that to beat Villanova, it’s more than their personnel," Mack said. "You have to try to defeat their culture, which isn’t easy. I say that knowing that they’re not going to have unforced errors. They’re not going to implode. They’re not going to make mistakes that cost them in key moments."
“You’re going to have to beat them. In order to do that, you’re going to have consistent, solid effort for 40 minutes. You’re not going to be able to play a pretty good half and disappear for eight to 10 minutes at a time, especially on the road. So just being able to make sure we’re competing for 40 minutes is a lot more important to me than how good of a 3-point shooter Kris Jenkins is, how good of an offensive rebounder and scorer Josh Hart is.”