The time for redemption is just around the corner. After a punishingly long offseason, the Xavier University Musketeers are primed to prove themselves as a premier college basketball program.
Muskie fans have known their teams’ credibility for nearly a decade now and have largely been content as being viewed as the hunters.
Those days are over.
After a breakout 2015-16 campaign, the expectations are as high as they have ever been for the Muskies. Literally. They will start the season at no. 8 in the coaches’ poll and 11 in KenPem projections. Other outlets have them projected as the fifth best team in the nation. Never have they been ranked this high in the preseason, and although they regularly find themselves in the top 25 at the end of the season, very rarely do they earn that credit in the preseason.
This is a new era for Xavier basketball and the tables are turned. The hunters have become the hunted and there is no turning back.
Where in the past, Xavier had nothing to lose by playing a non-power conference team, the Musketeers will have to play at their best every game night to retain their perch at the top. The letter “X” will be circled on all of their opponents’ calendars.
But this team is more than up to the task. While there are certainly questions that remain to be answered, the talent, athleticism and experience are all on Xavier’s side.
Here are three questions the Musketeers will face at the beginning of the season.
- Can Xavier’s frontcourt fill the stats left behind by Farr and Reynolds?
The most glaring question is that of Xavier’s frontcourt. Reynolds and Farr are gone and have taken with them 40+ minutes, 20+ points and 14+ rebounds. And while Farr and Reynolds are gone, they represent what could become of Xavier’s frontcourt for the 2016-17 season.
As fun as Reynolds was to watch, he never fully realized his potential, especially considering what the Xavier staff has done with their big men in the past. Case and point: James Farr.
Farr had been well-known and liked commodity at Xavier, but up until his senior year had also been viewed as an underachiever and an unfinished product. Low and behold, Farr came into his own as a menacing rebounder, effective post scorer and able mid-range shooter for the Muskies last year. Without his transformation, Xavier would not have been a top ten team last season.
Now the frontcourt minutes will have to be eaten up by graduate transfer Rashid Gaston and Sean O’Mara.
Starting with the former, Gaston has a rich history on his side. Over the past 15 years, the Xavier staff has had tremendous success plugging in transfer big men into the rotation. Let’s go through the list: Anthony Myles, Brian Thornton, Travis Taylor, Andre Walker, Matt Stainbrook. All of these big men were able to successfully make the leap to Xavier and contribute to tournament teams.
Gaston is already a proven monster in the post. You don’t put up 15 and 10 at the collegiate level without God-given skills and a low post know-how. Plus, he has a year of practicing with the team, bodying up against Farr, Reynolds, and O’Mara. Expect Gaston to pick up right where Farr and Reynold left off. Xavier won’t miss a beat with him at the five.
That leaves O’Mara as a very valuable backup, especially early in the season when the officials will be quick with the whistle, as the NCAA rules committee has emphasized reducing the physicality of play. O’Mara will likely be the first off the bench for the Muskies, and the great teams need their bench players to contribute statistically to play winning basketball.
O’Mara showed flashes of brilliance last season in the limited number of minutes he got. As a junior, it’s time to see if the Xavier staff has developed him into the second coming of Jason Love rather than Kenny Frease.
The problem areas for O’Mara have been foul trouble, defensive positioning and his hands (catching and handling entry passes into the post and lose balls). If he has improved in at least two of these areas, he will likely see a significant spike in minutes. If that is the case, as he demonstrated last year, his efficiency is unquestionable. He averaged 3 points and 2 rebound per contest while averaging only 7 minutes per game. If he can get on the court for 20 minutes per game, he has the potential to average close to double digit scoring and somewhere in the area of 6-8 rebounds per contest.
- How to move on without Myles Davis.
The team must move on and prepare to assume Davis won’t be back, a sad but very likely truth. They are capable of winning without him, but they are undoubtedly better with him. At this point, they don’t have a proven backup to Edmund Sumner at the point. Sumner is not a true distributor at guard and, in that regard, they will miss Davis who led the team in assists last season.
They will also miss his leadership. This is a void that can be filled by any number of players as the season progresses, but the Muskies are going to miss his calming influence early on, especially in preseason tournament play.
At this point, Xavier fans should try to think about Davis as little as possible. If he does return to action (hopefully by Big East play), fans can then think of it as a midseason acquisition for their team which is poised for a deep playoff run. The final piece of the puzzle as it were.
- Can Xavier thrive at the top?
The final question which I alluded to earlier, is how Xavier will respond to being the hunted. Playing under the microscope comes with a whole new set of challenges that nobody at Xavier is accustomed to.
Xavier has been on an unstoppable train since their Elite Eight run in 2004. Older fans might argue that it goes back as far as the Pete Gillan days. Regardless of when they boarded, the train has led them to a major power basketball conference in the Big East. Now they have the eye of the experts and conversely the college basketball nation trained on them. With that attention will come critique and lofty expectations, more than the program has ever had experienced.
It’s up to Mack and his staff to keep this team level headed. They showed last year that they can as demonstrated by Xavier maintaining a top ten ranking for 12 straight weeks. The question now becomes can they do it for a whole season.
It’s not just the pressure from the media that the team will have to deal with. The fans have very high expectations as well. Whereas a decade ago, making the Sweet Sixteen was seen as an overachievement, nowadays, Xavier fans are hungry for more. Realistically, anything less than an Elite Eight this year will be viewed as a failure by the Xavier faithful. Patience is wearing thin.
The good news for Xavier fans is that every team has question marks going into the start of the season. Think back to last year. The questions were about who is going to take over at the point? How are we going to replace Matt Stainbrook?
The answers came quickly and emphatically, and the rest is history.
Xavier now has the luxury of sorting out their questions in non-conference play. They have scheduled challenging but lesser opponents to probe their lineup and find answers to these questions.
There is nothing left to do but get out there and play. The rest will sort itself out.