CINCINNATI – No Trevon Bluiett. No J.P. Macura. No Sean O’Mara or Kerem Kanter. And no Chris Mack.
The Xavier Musketeers will look a lot different this season. But while expectations are low externally, there’s a quiet confidence with this team and a sizable chip on their shoulders.
“There’s no pressure right now,” sophomore guard Naji Marshall said during Media Day at Cintas Center on Tuesday. “We have something to prove. People are saying we lost Tre, J.P. … same old story. We use it as motivation. Coach wanted us to be closer than ever. We see that in practice every day. We’ve become one.”
The Musketeers lost their top three scorers from last season, including one of the best players in program history in Bluiett. They also bid farewell to the all-time winningest coach in program history in Mack, who is now at Louisville.
But despite being picked to finish sixth in the Big East Conference -- and considered by some to be an NCAA Tournament bubble team at best -- the Musketeers are poised for a fresh start under new coach Travis Steele. Sans any stars, these Musketeers said they already have formed a collective bond.
“I think we can do big things,” said junior forward Tyrique Jones. “We lost some high-level pieces. We’re not afraid to say we lost high-level pieces. But we have guys who are ready to step in and take that lead role.”
Coming off their first-ever Big East regular-season championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Musketeers enter this season seeking respect. After falling short of expectations by losing to Florida State in the second round last March, Xavier now is looking to exceed expectations by reaching the tournament this season.
That is quite a one-season turnaround.
“It’s not how you start the race, it’s how you finish the race,” Steele said. “Preseason rankings are what they are. We try to recruit guys who have a chip on their shoulder. We want guys who are self-motivated. You see them practice every day … they have the mentality to go out there and prove people wrong.”
Under Mack, the Musketeers routinely averaged close to 80 points per game while also giving up nearly as many. Attribute it to personnel or coaching style or both, but the Musketeers are certain to appear much different under Steele.
“I think this can be the best defensive team in Xavier history,” said Steele. “It starts with the personnel. We have a lot of like-sized guys. We have 6 (foot) 3-plus guys who are athletic. Naji Marshall is among the most versatile defenders in the country.”
Despite Bluiett, Macura and Kanter’s points production last season, none of them excelled at the defensive end of the floor. With the length of Marshall, the tenacity of guards Paul Scruggs and Quentin Goodin and a sleeker and slimmer Jones, the Musketeers have the makings of a solid defensive squad. While they figure out where the points are going to come from this season, the Musketeers would like to score more from transition, turnovers and blocked shots.
“We lost a lot of firepower,” Steele said. “Offensively, we’re going to look a lot different than we have in past years. We have to create more offense off of our defense. We need to learn to guard without fouling, too. Officials are going to call it tight early in the year. We have to adjust to that.”
Depth could be an issue for the Musketeers, who have only 10 scholarship players and just five returning from last season. Xavier can ill afford any serious injuries, making Goodin’s dislocated left shoulder a bit more worrisome. The junior point guard, who has started 52 straight games, had his arm in a sling during Musketeer Madness and was expected to sit out practice this week.
“We’re going to be cautious with him,” said Steele on Tuesday. “I don’t see it being an issue. We’re going to want him to be aggressive. He’s going to score more this year -- we know that because of the guys we have around him.”
But depth has a funny way of working itself out. And the Musketeers have plenty of wild cards on this year’s roster. Elias Harden is one. After averaging fewer than six minutes a game last season, the former four-star guard made significant progress this summer. Transfers Kyle Castlin from Columbia, Ryan Welage from Fresno State and Zach Hankins from Ferris State all will play key roles. Freshmen Keonte Kennedy and Dontarius James are looking to bust their way into the lineup.
“We want to develop our bench and play at least eight guys,” Steele said. “There’s a huge learning curve for the freshmen. Keonte has put on about 10 pounds of muscle, but he can shoot the ball. Dontarius, same thing. Physically he’s ready. It’s just about having the game slow down for him.”
Media Day at Cintas Center on Tuesday wasn’t all about basketball. Xavier also introduced new food and beverage items and amenities at Cintas Center, including a visible timeout clock and a suite for nursing mothers.
Food additions include Delicio Coal Fired Pizza and Eli’s Barbeque. Among the several local craft beer styles already available at Cintas, Xavier unveiled D'Artagnan's Draught, a collaboration with Samuel Adams.
The Musketeers’ style of play might be noticeably different with several new faces on the roster. However, Steele said things won’t change much from the coaches’ box.
“First time I met with the guys in the locker room, I told them I’m going to be the same guy I’ve always been,” said Steele, who spent nine seasons as a Xavier assistant. “There wasn’t as big an adjustment as much as I thought there would be.”