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2021-22 Big East Basketball Summer Check-In: Xavier Musketeers

If this year’s Musketeers can live up to the promise of last December’s Musketeers….

Wisconsin v Xavier Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Team: Xavier Musketeers

2020-21 Record: 13-8, 6-7 Big East

2020-21 Big East Finish: Seventh, three wins behind Providence but still three losses ahead of the Friars, thanks to COVID cancellations.

Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #66

Postseason? Nope, and there’s a very real possibility that COVID pauses are the reason why. We’ll get into it.

Key Departures: Xavier has lost three rotation guys from last year’s roster, but no one who you would declare to be mission critical. Jason Carter is the biggest one, since he started in 20 of Xavier’s 21 games. 26.6 minutes per game is strong, but 5.5 points isn’t a notable loss. Carter did contribute a lot in the rebounding department, coming up with six caroms per game and was particularly effective on the offensive glass. Bryan Griffin was getting solid rotation minutes early in the season, then missed three games in the middle of the year, and then was relegated to deep bench activity from there. All told, the 6’8” New York native only averaged 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in his 11 minutes per game. C.J. Wilcher rounded into a rotation guy as his freshman season progressed and ended up averaging 4.5 points and 1.5 rebounds per game in the final 10 games of the year. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because the New Jersey native is at Nebraska now.

Key Returners: Oh boy do I have a list for you. Xavier returns their top seven scorers from last season, eight if you include Ben Stanley who only appeared in four games after getting his waiver to play immediately starting on December 20th but before he tore his ACL on January 6th and missed the rest of the year. Zach Freemantle and his team high 16.1 points and team high 8.9 rebounds? Back. Paul Scruggs, who paired his team lead in assists at 5.7 per game with 14 points a night? Back. Nate Johnson, who was the the third of three double digit scorers at 11.4 per game? Back. Colby Jones, Noted Marquette killer Adam Kunkel, Dwon Odom, Kyky Tandy, all of whom averaged between 7.7 and 6.6 points per game? Back, back, back, and back.

Key Additions: Two top 150 prospects gives Xavier the #52 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports. That ranks them #7 in the Big East because this conference is ridiculously loaded with freshmen this year, apparently. Cesare Edwards is the more highly ranked guy between the two at #115 in the country. The 6’9”, 225 pound South Carolina native is listed by 247 Sports as a center, but the Musketeers are calling him a forward on the official roster page. Elijah Tucker (6’7”, 205 lbs) is ranked #125 in the country. I’m going to presume that the Georgian (state, not country) is more of a small forward at his size than the power forward that 247 lists him as.

The Musketeers have two transfers that are new to the program as well, and both are in Cincinnati for more than just a COVID-bonus season of eligibility. Jerome Hunter (6’7”, 215 lbs.) had carved himself out a nice role at Indiana over the past two years. 55 appearances with four starts, 16.7 minutes per game, 4.9 points, 2.5 rebounds. His three-point shot (32.4%) could do with some work, but maybe more minutes is all he really needs. Jack Nunge (6’11”, 245 lbs.) had a great freshman year at Iowa (5.7 points, 2.8 rebounds in 16 minutes/game), but after a redshirt year in 2018-19, he has had each of the past two years cut short by knee injuries, first an ACL tear and then a meniscus tear the year after that. A former resident of Iowa City when he was younger, Nunge elected to transfer closer to home because his father passed away right before the 2020-21 season started.

Coach: Travis Steele, in his fourth season as Xavier head coach and fourth season overall. He has a record of 51-37 overall and 23-27 in Big East games.

Outlook: If you, the Xavier fan, wanted to only focus on the positives from the 2020-21 season and ignore any negatives that could easily be identified, I think that’s a pretty justifiable position to take.

In the Associated Press poll issued on December 21st last season, Xavier was ranked #22 in the country. They were a perfect 8-0 on the year and had opened up league play 1-0, even if you wanted to say they were a little bit lucky to get that win. They lost their next game, but there’s nothing wrong with losing on the road to #13 Creighton. They lost their next game after that as well to wrap up 2020, and yeah, that one was bad, as it was a 17 point defeat at home to Seton Hall.... but y’know, things happen.

And then Xavier played just three games in January. Y’know, the month when league play really gets going and you’re playing twice a week? Should be eight games played? Three. Two of them were in the first 10 days. Didn’t play at all between January 11th and January 29th, and then after beating Butler on the road on the 30th, the Musketeers went without a game again until February 13th.

They went into that game on February 13th with a record of 11-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big East and holding down 37 points in the AP poll.

Xavier went 2-6 the rest of the way.

I don’t think it’s out of line to say that COVID breaks badly disrupted Xavier’s season. Whether it was just going so long without being able to practice together and develop that cohesion that you need or because guys just lost 10% or whatever of their fitness levels while paused, February Xavier clearly was not the team that December Xavier was.

So, if you want to ignore any major problems about the year, I say go ahead. Focus on what did go well and try to move on from there.

The fact that this team returns almost entirely intact from last season should be encouraging to the XU faithful. All due respect to the other two guys, but Jason Carter is the only real loss as he was the only guy contributing all season long. Even then, he wasn’t driving the show, not as much as the trio of Freemantle, Scruggs, and Johnson were. Xavier isn’t blessed by a lot of size this season but if Nunge is healthy and Edwards can do what you would expect from a top 125 prospect with size, then maybe Carter’s loss is negligible at best.

Xavier was a top 25 team last year when the machine was humming smoothly. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that could be their ceiling again this year if everybody gets back on the court and pulling in the same direction again this fall.