Team: Xavier Musketeers
2017-18 Record: 29-6 overall, 15-3 Big East
2017-18 Big East Finish: First, believe it or not, as somewhat predicted by a very smart person on Twitter.
Final 2017-18 KenPom Ranking: #15
Postseason? Qualified for their fifth straight NCAA tournament, and their 12th in the last 13 years. Lost in the second round to Florida State.
Key Departures: Seniors Trevon Bluiett (19.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists), Kerem Kanter (10.9 pts, 4.5 rebs), and J.P. Macura (12.9 pts, 4.5 rebs, 2.9 ast); Kaiser Gates (7.2 pts, 4.6 rebs)
Key Returners: Quentin Goodin (8.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists); Tyrique Jones (7.0 pts, 4.5 rebs); Naji Marshall (7.7 pts, 4.4 rebs, 1.6 ast)
Key Additions: Grad transfers out the whazoo! Kyle Castlin (6’4” guard, 8.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists in three seasons at Columbia), Ryan Welage (6’9” forward, 13.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists in three seasons at San Jose State, SJSU’s all time leader in made three-pointers), and Zach Hankins (6’10” center, 15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists at Division II Ferris State, named 2018 NABC D2 National Player of the Year); plus 247 Sports’ #63 recruiting class (8th best in the Big East, no top 180 recruits)
Coach: Travis Steele, in his first year in charge at Xavier and first year overall.
Outlook: Let’s first deal with what Xavier is losing off of the floor after the 2017-18 season. The Musketeers are going to have to replace 66.9% of their scoring, 58.0% of their minutes played, and 100% of their “I dare you to mess with me” attitude. The scoring and minutes thing is the combined total of their seniors and the now-departed Kaiser Gates, while the attitude is merely the loss of J.P. Macura. No matter what Xavier is or will be in 2018-19, they’re going to be slightly less intimidating with one of the most easily hateable players in America on the roster. Figuring out how to track down more than two-thirds of their point total somewhere else next season is potentially going to be difficult, as no one on the returning roster averaged more than nine points per game. The fact that there’s as big of a gap between points and minutes does lend itself to a little bit of optimism for the Xavier faithful, as there’s a decent amount of guys who played quality minutes last season that know what they’re doing out there. Now they’ll be asked to score a lot more, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s also probably not the best thing either.
How you answer the question of “How will Xavier bridge the scoring and minutes gap from last season?” ends up depending on how you feel about Travis Steele being hired to replace Chris Mack as head coach. Steele was originally hired as an assistant at Xavier by Sean Miller in 2008, and after Mack was elevated from assistant to head coach following the 2008-09 season, Steele was retained as an assistant and he’s been there ever since. Luke Murray and Mike Pegues followed Mack to Louisville, presumably with the idea in mind that Steele was the front runner for the Xavier job. With Xavier promoting a current assistant each of the last two times before now that they needed to hire a coach, it makes all the sense in the world that they would do it again, and that’s where we are now.
Like Miller and Mack before him, this is Steele’s first Division 1 head coaching job. Xavier has hit home runs with Miller and Mack, earning 12 NCAA tournament appearances in their combined 14 seasons. The Musketeers won at least one NCAA tournament game in nine of those 12 years, and they added two Elite Eights and six Sweet Sixteens. That’s a hell of a resume since 2004 and doesn’t even take into account the success of Thad Matta, Skip Prosser, or Pete Gillen going back to the 1980s. There is a certain amount of expectation for Xavier basketball at this point, and Steele will have to find a way to live up to that expectation fairly quickly. Maybe the minutes and points losses from last year buys him a little bit of time, at least in his first season, but that probably won’t last much past that.
It appears that Steele’s plan for 2018-19 is to paper over the problem with graduate transfers and start solving things for future seasons. XU will have three graduate transfers on the roster next season, but there is a question to be asked as to how much those guys can contribute in the Big East. One is a part-time starter from the Ivy League who had an injury shortened junior season last year, one is the all-time three-point shooting leader from a program that won 27 games in his three seasons there, and one is coming off of a Division 2 National Player of the Year award. I’ll put money on Zach Hankins — he’s the Division 2 guy — being the best of the three, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
If you’re the optimistic sort, then it’s pretty easy to believe that the group of Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones, and Paul Scruggs will all take a step forward given their newfound opportunities on the court, the grad transfers will do an excellent job filling in around them, and Steele’s tenure on the Xavier sideline allows him to maintain a lot of XU’s consistency. If you’re the pessimistic sort, then it’s pretty easy to think that the returning guys might not be able to replace the likes of Macura and Trevon Bluiett and Steele’s inexperience in the big chair will end up causing him to not be able to find a way to maximize the talents that he has and can’t live up to the performances that his former boss was able to derive from his teams.
Is either of those options the likely outcome for Xavier? Probably not. Things will probably land somewhere in the middle. Might we see both ends pop up from time to time in 2018-19? Seems possible. The goal for Steele will be to minimize the bottom end while striving to keep hitting the bell on the top end as much as possible.