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2022-23 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Xavier Musketeers

How much does Sean Miller mean to a basketball team? What if Sean Miller’s not there?

Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds - Game Two Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Team: Xavier Musketeers

2021-22 Record: 23-13, 8-11 Big East

2021-22 Big East Finish: Tied for seventh with St. John’s, but lost the season series 2-0 and thus lost the tiebreaker.

Final 2021-22 Ranking: #53

Postseason? Yeah, and boy was it a weird one. They lost seven of their final nine regular season games and then their Big East tournament debut to end up as a #2 seed in the NIT. They scratched out a win over Cleveland State at home..... and then the XU administration elected to relieve head coach Travis Steele of his duties the very next day. Assistant coach Jonas Hayes then took over day-to-day direction of the team, but before their next NIT game could tip off, Xavier announced that Sean Miller would be the next head coach. With all of this going on, they beat Florida and Vanderbilt, both at home, to advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.... and then they beat St. Bonaventure and Texas A&M to win the entire dang thing.

Key Departures: The biggest loss for Xavier is going to be Paul Scruggs. After a freshman year where he came off the bench to chip in behind Quentin Goodin, Scruggs was remarkably consistent for the Musketeers across the next four seasons thanks to a COVID bonus year of eligibility. 12.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game across 117 starts for Xavier while shooting 35% from downtown. Those are his multi-year averages, but they could fit in with any single season in that run. While he’s still a loss to the team, we do have to note that he missed the final three games of their NIT title run after tearing his ACL.

Xavier loses two other guys from their regular rotation, but only one of them was expected when the season ended. Nate Johnson wrapped up his second season at Xavier after starting his career at Gardner-Webb with 10.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game while knocking down nearly 38% of his threes. He was a great option for the Musketeers as they wrapped up the season with five different guys averaging at least 10 points a game.

The guy who was not expected to have his Xavier career come to an end was Dwon Odom. He appeared in all 36 games this past season, starting in nine of them and eight of those came after Valentine’s Day. That includes starting in the final three games of the NIT as he effectively replaced Scruggs in the starting lineup. Odom averaged 6.3 points, 2.0 points, and 2.2 assists per game for the season, but that was 8.7, 2.3, and 2.7 in the late stages of the NIT. Anyway, he transferred after everything was said and done, and now he’s at Georgia State.

As mentioned a moment ago, Xavier is also losing their head coach from last year. Travis Steele was hired as an assistant at Xavier by Sean Miller back in 2009 and he stayed with the program when Chris Mack was elevated to head coach. Mack promoted Steele to Associate Head Coach in 2015, and when Mack took the Louisville job, Steele was promoted from within to take the reins. He never came close to matching the success that either of his two bosses had with the X-Men, making the NIT in his first and final seasons and missing the postseason in 2019 and not ending up projected as an NCAA tournament team in 2020.

Key Returners: Can I interest you in an NIT champion returning four of their top six scorers and three of the top four? Believe it or not, Jack Nunge was Xavier’s scoring leader last season, finishing up the year at 13.4 points to go with his team high 7.4 rebounds as well. It didn’t hurt that the 7-footer from Indiana shot 37% from long range, either. I think we can say that Colby Jones had a breakout year for Xavier last season, boosting his scoring by nearly four points a game and falling just barely short of Nunge’s team lead in rebounds at 7.3 per game. He also was second on the team to Scruggs in assists, and the only thing we can really tsk-tsk about his season is that 29% long range shooting percentage.

Hey, remember Zach Freemantle? Yeah, I know, right? The New Jersey native had foot surgery in October and thus missed Xavier’s first six games altogether and only played six minutes off the bench against Central Michigan in his season debut on December 1st. He eventually worked his way back into the starting lineup.... before getting turned around to a bench role once Steele was fired after the first game of the NIT. I’m not sure if the foot issue hampered him, but this past season was definitely a step back for him, although it’s still pretty good when your “step back” season is 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. Freemantle never got his shooting together though, connecting on just 26% of his long range attempts.

Adam Kunkel and Jerome Hunter had notable roles for Xavier last season with Kunkel averaging 23 minutes a night and Hunter getting 15 minutes of burn on average. Neither guy was a regular starter, although Hunter did get the first five nod in 17 of his 35 appearances. Kunkel chipped in an 8/2/2 in his court time, while Hunter was a little bit more understated somewhat thanks to his lesser PT at 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds a night.

There’s also Kyky Tandy, and I’m not sure what his status for this coming season is going to be. He played in just five games last season and only cleared more than eight minutes on one occasion before being shut down for the year to have surgery to correct a stress fracture in his left leg. Now, the shutdown and surgery happened last December, so by the time the season starts, he’ll be 11 months into his rehab process. If his surgery was anything like Emarion Ellis’, then Tandy’s bones were healed by April, so in theory, he’s 100% and ready to go, but I’m also not a doctor, so we’ll see what happens. Tandy is a former top 100 prospect for the Musketeers who nursed an injury through the late stages of the 2020-21 season before entering the transfer portal but ultimately returning to Xavier just to end up missing most of last season.

Key Additions: Let’s start with grad transfer Souley Boum, if for no other reason that no one grad transfers anywhere just to sit around and do nothing. After starting his collegiate career strong (10.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 36% on threes) at San Francisco, the 6’3” guard from Oakland transferred to UTEP and stayed there for three seasons. With the Miners, Boum averaged 16.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game in 86 appearances with 74 starts. He was a 34.5% three-point shooter overall in those three seasons, but over the last two, Boum was all the way up to 37.7%.

The Musketeers also add two top 100 freshmen to their roster this fall. Kam Craft (6’6”, 205 pounds) was 247 Sports’ #57 ranked player in the class of 2022, while Desmond Claude (6’5”, 195 pounds) came in at #83. With top 100 freshmen outside the top 50, the range of possibilities as to what they will and will not accomplish this season is pretty wide. Claude is listed as a point guard by 247, and with Scruggs gone, that may give him a slightly better chance at minutes immediately. With that said, “freshman point guard” is never the kind of phrase that inspires calm and tranquility in a college basketball fan’s heart. Craft signed with the Musketeers last November, while Claude committed in January but still signed in April after the coaching change was made.

And we can’t forget about the most notable addition to the Musketeers’ program since last year’s Big East tournament.....

Head Coach: Sean Miller, in his second stint as top man in Cincinnati. Miller was first hired as XU’s head coach in 2004, taking a promotion and moving one seat over when Thad Matta took the Ohio State job. How fun is it that they’re both in the same league together now? In any case, Miller went 120-47 in his first tenure with the Musketeers from 2004-2009, qualifying for the NCAA tournament in each of his last four seasons and winning at least one game in each of the last three appearances. That includes an Elite Eight in 2008 and a Sweet 16 in 2009. After that, Miller took the Arizona job, and after a rough first year that had very little to do with anything he was doing, he made the NCAA tournament in seven of the next eight seasons, advancing to the Elite Eight three times and the Sweet 16 twice. Things took a downturn from there as Arizona missed the NCAA tourney in 2019, there was no tourney in 2020 (although they would have made it per Bracket Matrix at the time), and the university self-imposed a postseason ban in 2021 before firing Miller in April. Miller went 302-109 at Arizona, even with a rocky start and rocky end, so it’s clear he can coach some basketball no matter what level we’re talking about.

Outlook: We have to come at this from several different angles.

What kind of opinion would you have about a generic Major Seven program that returns three of the top four scorers and four of the top six from an NIT championship team and adds two top 100 freshmen?

Does your opinion change favorably or negatively when I point out that said NIT championship team played their final three games without their soon to be leaving anyway senior point guard and won all three?

What if I tell you that this same team fired their head coach for missing the NCAA tournament in four straight seasons after a lackluster showing in their first NIT contest, even though it was a win? Does that make you wonder if winning the NIT was a Dead Cat Bounce or an actual show of their potential?

What happens to your opinion of this team if I tell you that three days after firing the head coach — aka “we already knew we were going to do this when we fired that other guy the other day” timing — the university announced the hiring of the next head coach, a guy who worked there over a decade ago, has an argument as the best coach in program history, and experienced great success at one of the most prominent programs in the country in the interim?

I think I come down on this right about here: While it’s fair to wonder if Xavier’s potential was exactly what they were last season and most of that team returns for 2022-23, it feels like a safe bet that Sean Miller is a better head coach than Travis Steele is and thus Xavier’s ceiling is higher than what they showed last year. Is it a lot higher? Mmmm, I don’t know if I go that far. Make the NCAA tournament higher? Yeah, that feels likely. Win the Big East regular season title higher? Hang on, let’s slow down here. Creighton’s a thing, and while Villanova is loaded with questions of their own in the wake of their own coaching change, we’re talking about a team returning three starters from a Final Four team coached by a guy who knows how things work there. But top three with those two, top half of the league? Maybe and almost assuredly, in that order.

That brings us to the looming question: What if Sean Miller’s not the head coach?

Quoting from ESPN’s article on Sean Miller’s termination more than a month after the 2020-21 season ended:

Arizona had been entangled in the 2017 federal investigation into corruption in college basketball. Former assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery after being accused of accepting $20,000 to steer Arizona players to aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins. During Dawkins’ trial, prosecutors played an FBI-intercepted call in which Richardson told Dawkins that Miller was paying $10,000 a month for former player Deandre Ayton. Miller has consistently denied paying players to attend Arizona.

The NCAA charged the school with five Level I violations, according to a notice of allegations released last month. The program was hit with two alleged instances of academic misconduct, while Miller was charged for not demonstrating “that he promoted an atmosphere for compliance and monitored his staff.”

And then from ESPN’s article on Miller being hired at Xavier:

In September 2017, Arizona became entangled in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball. That added an aura of uncertainty to Miller’s candidacy, as Arizona’s punishment from the NCAA enforcement process — via the Independent Accountability Resolution Process — could include some level of punishment specific to Miller.

In March 2020, Arizona’s initial notice of allegations from the NCAA indicated a hearing panel “could prescribe head coach restrictions” to Miller. A ruling on Arizona’s case from the IARP is expected within the next year.

Man, that “within the next year” is awfully ominous, especially since it’s been six months since that was written and there’s still no decision.

Now, yes, I understand that Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher was part of the NCAA Committee on Infractions as far back as 2012 and became the chair of the committee in 2017 with a three year term. I get that Big East Deputy Commissioner Vince Nicastro currently serves on the COI. Christopher is obviously very plugged in to what was going on with Arizona’s infractions case since the Notice of Allegations was delivered in March of 2021, not long after his time as chair was done. Even if Christopher’s not actually on the committee any longer, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that he could give Nicastro a ring for an update before moving ahead on hiring Sean Miller.

As such, it certainly seems like there’s no athletic director in the country in a better position to know exactly what possible fate awaits his brand new coaching hire who is waiting to hear about any infraction punishment handed down. Is it possible that Christopher is comfortable with whatever might happen and he’s outlined exactly what is and is not expected of Miller and his staff at Xavier to avoid not promoting an atmosphere of compliance and so on? Sure!

That doesn’t mean that Miller’s not going to have to take a break this season if the IARP ever gets off their can and actually does anything.

And what happens if Miller has to serve a suspension at some point this season? What does that do to Xavier’s possibilities for success? Is Associate Head Coach Adam Cohen going to be able to hold it together for however that long lasts? What happens if Christopher is wrong and Miller gets absolutely hammered by the outcome of the infractions process? What happens to Xavier and their season if that happens?

It should be a good season for the Musketeers and they should have a healthy dose of sunny optimism about it. But there’s a cloud drifting into view, and the question is whether or not it’s just going to pass on by or if it’s going to bring rain.