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2020-21 Big East Men’s Basketball Team Preview: Xavier Musketeers

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Should Musketeer fans be worried about Travis Steele’s 17-19 record in Big East games?

Seton Hall v Xavier
Too much mascot for just one picture.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Team: Xavier Musketeers

2019-20 Record: 19-13, with an 8-10 record in the Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: Tied for sixth, lost the tiebreaker and ended up as the #7 seed in the conference tournament.

Final 2019-20 KenPom Ranking: #45

Postseason Projection: On the last compilation from BracketMatrix.com, Xavier fell as the first team out of the NCAA tournament. They appeared in 52 of 97 bracket projections. It’s unclear as to whether this update took into account their Big East tournament loss, but it seems that they would have been a shoo-in for the NIT at worst.

Key Departures: We start with seniors, because those are the obvious departures. Xavier has two major losses in that department in Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones. The bigger one of the two is Jones, as he averaged a double-double at 14.0 points and 11.0 rebounds. Goodin has been a starter for Xavier for a large majority of his career, although he did lose that job due to a mid-season injury this past year. Still, he appeared in 30 of 32 games, and averaged 6.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. Bryce Moore also heads out the door following his senior campaign, and the transfer from Western Michigan gave the Musketeers 14 minutes per game although not much else.

The final name we have to mention is Naji Marshall, who elected to end his eligibility following his junior season and enter the NBA Draft. Marshall led XU in scoring this past year, averaging a very strong 16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. At 6’7” and 220 pounds, Marshall had the kind of game that was always dangerous at the college level. His one flaw was a propensity to take three-pointers that he had no business attempting, so that’s an addition by subtraction item for Xavier in what is otherwise a pretty substantial loss.

Key Returners: With the loss of Marshall and Jones, Xavier will be without their top two scorers from a year ago. However, #3 through #6 on that list are back again this year, led by Paul Scruggs. He gave the Musketeers 12.7 points per game along with 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Scruggs also shot the second most threes on the team, except he made 37% of them as opposed to Naji Marshall only connecting 29% of the time. Zach Freemantle did quality college basketball things, working his way into the starting lineup in the back half of the season and averaging 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in his 32 appearances. Jason Carter was an every night starter for XU, chipping in 6.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. KyKy Tandy is the last name we need to mention here. After missing the first seven games of the season, Tandy turned into a regular in the rotation, but only really contributed in the scoring department at 6.7 points and 1.3 rebounds per game.

Key Additions: Xavier adds the #24 recruiting class in the country, trailing only Marquette and Connecticut in the Big East. Dwon Odom (6’1, 185 pounds, #55 in the country per 247 Sports) is the big name to know, as the guard out of Alpharetta, Georgia, is the third best prospect entering the league this season. C.J. Wilcher and Colby Jones are both top 140 prospects. They’re also both shooting guards according to their 247 Sports profiles, with both men measuring in at 6’5” and 195 pounds.

The Musketeers add a pair of what I believe are both grad transfers as well. Bryan Griffin (6’8”, 230 pounds) is listed as a senior after spending four years at Division 2 Mercy College. He scored 19.6 points per game last year and led all of Division 2 in rebounding at 14.5 per contest. Seems good. The other name to know here is Nate Johnson, a 6’4” guard hailing from Florida by way of Gardner-Webb. He was a starter for the last two years for the Bulldogs, including a 2019-20 campaign where he averaged 13.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.

Xavier is also waiting to hear about a transfer waiver for Ben Stanley. He was at Hampton for the past two seasons, and went from rotation guy to major player in those two years. Last season, the 6’6”, 230 pound Stanley averaged 22.0 points per game along with 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

Coach: Travis Steele, entering his third season in charge in the Queen City. Back-to-back 19 win seasons have given him a career record of 38-29.

Outlook: I suspect that, if you’re a fan of Xavier basketball, how you feel about the 2020-21 season depends an awful lot on how you feel about how the 2019-20 season ended.

After rallying back from a 2-6 start to Big East play to even their record out at eight wins and eight losses, Xavier drove their car into a wall. A road 80-74 loss to Providence where Xavier needed a 12-2 run early in the second half to make it a competitive game the rest of the way. A regular season finale at home spoiled by Kamar Baldwin answering Naji Marshall with a three at the buzzer to hand the Musketeers a 72-71 loss. And finally, a 71-67 loss in the first game of the Big East tournament as XU gave up a late but very long 12-2 run to #10 seed DePaul.

Those three losses, especially that last one, probably would have cost Xavier an NCAA tournament berth if there had been an NCAA tournament. I mean, yeah, the loss at Wake Forest wasn’t helping either, but that was their only other questionable loss. The Musketeers had Travis Steele’s first NCAA tournament bid in their hands, and then they booted it down the drain in just one week’s time.

Or maybe they didn’t! Maybe they did do enough to get in because most of the Bracket Matrix projections actually did have them in!

And that’s the catch: Are you, the Xavier fan, more excited that they appeared to have played their way into the tournament late? Or are you more bummed out that they appear to have maybe screwed it all up at the last second, literally in the case of the Baldwin buzzer beater?

If you’re the first person, then you’re thinking that Travis Steele has gotten this whole thing figured out by the end of year two and things will be okay from here on out. If you’re the second person, then you’re starting to get very twitchy about whether or not Steele can do this job, even if he was an assistant to Chris Mack since 2009. Not “he’s gotta go” crazy, just “uh, that crash and burn was not good at all and also there’s an awful lot of holes in the roster suddenly opening up” twitchy.

After all, if you’re that second person, then you just watched Xavier miss the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season. If you’re a senior at Xavier this fall and just saw that happen, you just saw something that hasn’t happened since you were a baby. 1999 and 2000, back when Skip Prosser was in charge in the Atlantic 10, that was the last time that Xavier missed two straight NCAA tournaments. Thad Matta never missed in his three seasons. Sean Miller only missed in his first season. Chris Mack had only one off year, and that was back in 2013. Xavier’s currently experiencing something that they haven’t seen in two decades. That’s if you’re of the more pessimistic personality, of course.

Regardless of whether you’re in a positive mindset or not about the Musketeers heading into the year, everyone can admit there are some big questions to answer for the team.

  • Who’s going to help Paul Scruggs score?
  • Who is going to rebound at all with Jones and Marshall gone?
  • Who’s going to take care of distribution without Marshall and Goodin on the floor?
  • Can Xavier get their offense (#103 in efficiency per KenPom) more in line with their defense (#20)? Or, better yet, since the rankings are flipped around from Steele’s first season, which version of Xavier is the one that Steele wants to see more often?
  • Can the Musketeers stop turning the ball over so damn much, something that was never really a problem under Chris Mack?

The scoring and distribution questions are the big ones for me from the outside looking in. Either the freshmen and grad transfers suddenly make a big impact right out of the gate in those departments, or else Xavier starts looking like they have a major problem. That’s something that we haven’t see from the Musketeers in a long, long time, and no matter what you think about where the team is right now, that’s not something you want to see at all.