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2023-24 Big East Women’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Xavier Musketeers

It won’t take much to improve on last season, but is the new coach equipped to make improvements with this roster?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Xavier at Connecticut
What can Mackayla Scarlett do for the Musketeers with a new coach running the show?
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Xavier Musketeers

2022-23 Record: 7-23, 0-20 Big East

2022-23 Big East Finish: Last, because that’s where not winning a single league game gets you.

Final 2022-23 Her Hoop Stats Ranking: #280

Postseason? Absolutely not, other than an 84-58 loss to #6 seed Seton Hall in the first round of the conference tournament.

Key Departures: Let’s ask a procedural question. When you lose 20 straight games to end the season — shouts to the Big East’s broken up league play schedule and a win over Cincinnati after conference action started — can anyone who has left the team since last we saw them be declared to be important to the team? If they were actually important to the team, wouldn’t Xavier have won at least one game after December 10th?

In any case, the Musketeers have lost three rotation players from last year. Courtney Prenger is the name you’ve heard the most relative to Xavier as last year was her fourth year with the Musketeers. She started in 29 games while appearing in all 30 for XU last season, but in over 25 minutes of action, she averaged just 7.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. All four of those numbers were career best for Prenger in her time in Cincinnati, and she’ll be spending her bonus season of eligibility at FIU.

Fernanda Ovalle and Kaleigh Addie were both freshmen last season, so it’s not terribly surprising that the coaching change sent them on their way out of town. Ovalle was the #2 scorer on the team last year at 8.4 points per game, and even with Xavier coming in at #200 in terms of pace per Her Hoop Stats, that number sure tells you a lot about why the Musketeers went 7-23. She also added 4.4 rebounds per game and was a competent three-point shooter at 34%. Addie played in all 30 games and made six starts. With 16.9 minutes per game as her season average, you can’t be surprised to find out that she averaged just 2.8 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. Addie has transferred to Georgia State, while Ovalle, a native of Chile, appears to have disappeared from the Division 1 ranks.

Oh, right, we can’t forget the coaching change. After a 0-20 Big East campaign, Xavier parted ways with head coach Melanie Moore. In four years at the helm, the Musketeers never won more than nine games in any season and never finished better than 9th in the Big East. She wrapped up her tenure — that’s just me using Xavier’s own words — with a record of 24-81 overall.

Key Returners: Prenger and Ovalle were in XU’s top four in scoring and top three in minutes played last season, so they’re taking a pretty strong dent, but still coming back with most of their rotation in place. Relative to our procedural question about departing players, I will let you decide whether or not it’s good news that the Musketeers have so many rotation players back from 2022-23.

In any case, Mackayla Scarlett is obviously the big name after leading the team in scoring and minutes played last season at 10.9 and 27.6 respectively. She also led the team in three-point attempts per game, and she knocked down more than 34% of those, which is pretty good. Yet once again, I will let you make the call as to what it says that Scarlett only started 24 times in 26 appearances last season.

Nila Blackford and Shelby Calhoun are probably the two next most important returning players. Blackford ended up as the team leader in rebounds at 5.5 per game after missing the month of November. She played in 21 games, but only started 13 times and averaged just over 22 minutes a night. Calhoun topped the team chart in assists at 2.9 per game even though she didn’t start regularly until December and also missed chunks of the season in December and January. It probably tells you a lot about Xavier last season that their team leaders in two notable statistical categories 1) missed a bunch of time and 2) spent a lot of the season coming off the bench when they were available.

Shooting the ball was a struggle for Xavier last season as evidenced by Kaysia Woods leading the team at 35% from long range. She wasn’t the team leader in attempts, as mentioned earlier, but she still attempted more than three per game while coming off the bench in 23 of her 30 appearances. She didn’t do much more scoring than her long range shooting at 5.8 points/game, but she did chip in 3.6 rebounds, so that’s not too bad for a guard.

I’ve been trying to say positive things here, but I’m running out of angles to fit in Aanaya Harris and Taylor Smith. Harris played in all 30 games and made 18 starts, but she averaged 5.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in just over 24 minutes minutes per game. Smith was actually Xavier’s third leading scorer.... at 7.5 per night. Part of that is Xavier coming in at #289 in Her Hoop Stats’ offensive ratings, and part of that is ranking #200 in tempo. She started 20 times in 29 appearances along the way, but fell just short of 23 minutes per game on average.

Key Additions: There are two experienced transfers, one inexperienced transfer, and four freshmen on the roster for Xavier this fall. Three of the freshmen are international players, and all three were brought in by the new coaching staff. The fourth freshman, Aby Shubert (#11, 5’8”, Guard, Kasson, Minnesota), was signed by Xavier last November, and she’s elected to stick with things in Cincinnati.

We’ll make mention of the inexperienced transfer just because it will ring a bell for Marquette fans. Aizhanique Mayo (#2, 5’9”, Guard, Bridgeport, Connecticut) has turned up at Cintas Center after leaving Marquette right before the 2022-23 season started. She was a mid-year transfer to Iona, but she did not play for the Gaels. Xavier’s calling her a redshirt freshman, but I am very much not clear on whether or not she’s eligible to play for the Musketeers as a result. Why did she leave Iona after a semester after leaving Marquette so early? That will make sense in a second.

Loren Christie (#1, 6’3”, Forward, London, England) is at Xavier following one year at San Francisco, which was her destination after three years at Buffalo. She came off the bench for 14 minutes a night for the Dons, averaging 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds. Those numbers are right about in line with what she did as a sometimes starter for the Bulls for three seasons, so we’ll see if anything about another change of scenery alters the output for the Englishwoman. The same idea applies to Tae’lor Purvis (#5, 5’7”, Guard, Houston, Texas), who spent the last three seasons with Houston. She turned into a sometimes starter for the Cougars in 2022-23, but averaged just 1.7 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 13 minute a game. With not much in terms of Obvious Star Players amongst the returning players, there’s clearly a path for both women to jump in and make an impact, but it’s hard to say that their history to this point tells us that it’s obviously going to happen for them.

And obviously, the most notable addition that’s not a player is....

Coach: Billi Chambers, entering her first season with the Musketeers and 11th as a Division 1 head coach. She spent the last 10 seasons at Iona — see, told you the Mayo thing would make sense — where the Gaels compiled a record of 141-153. Chambers is coming off her second NCAA tournament appearance in addition to MAAC regular season and tournament titles.

Outlook: Billi Chambers goes into Year One of her new job with an incredibly low bar to declare 2023-24 a success.

Xavier won seven games last season. Even worse, they opened up the year 5-0, which means the Musketeers closed the campaign on a 2-23 run, and that includes 20 straight losses and a loss in each and every one of their 21 games against Big East opponents. With 11 non-conference games announced right now, Chambers could call a 10-22 season with a 1-19 record in Big East play an improvement on last year. Heck, eight wins would be a literal improvement, so the bar for “hey, one step at a time, we accomplished something here” isn’t even set at 10 total wins on the year. Merely winning a game after Christmas counts as a step forward. I could keep going, you get the idea here.

Here’s the catch: I have no idea how they do this.

Obviously we can easily argue that Melanie Moore’s coaching was the problem in Cincinnati. Xavier never won more than nine games in a season in her four years. Things were clearly not going well. While I will always believe that it’s the coach’s job to win with the players that they have, there’s an argument to be had here that Xavier never had players who could compete at the Big East level. They got outscored 69.9 to 49.7 on average against Big East opponents last season. In short: Not competitive.

Xavier brings back most of their roster. The additions to the team are either A) unproven options coming in as transfers or B) total mysteries as to what they can contribute. Now, sure, maybe merely having Chambers directing traffic at Cintas Center makes a difference for the Musketeers, but it’s hard to look at this roster and see how things get notably better right away.

There’s also the issue of wondering why Chambers got this job. Scroll back up there. Did you catch where I noted that she finished her tenure at Iona with a sub-.500 record across a decade? Drop out the regular season title from this past season, and Chambers’ mark with the Gaels drops to 115-146. Drop the 23-12 campaign in 2015-16 that ended with Iona’s first ever NCAA tournament appearance, and the record is now 92-134. Before 2022-23, Chambers hadn’t won 12 games in a season — while coaching in the MAAC! — since 2016-17, and that includes four straight seasons of single digit win totals.

A coach who had a .407 winning percentage outside of the two years that she won the conference tournament is now in charge of a roster that won just seven games last season and doesn’t add anyone that’s an obvious game changer... and lost two of their top four scorers. This sounds like a recipe for problems for a program that’s had just two winning seasons since 2012.