A 3rd place finish in the inaugural season of the realigned Big East and a return back to the NCAA tournament highlighted Xavier’s 2013-14 campaign, which they finished 21-13 (10-8). The season was plagued with inconsistency; a three game losing streak in November at the Battle 4 Atlantis, followed by an eight game winning streak spanning into Big East play before eventually losing four of five games to end the season. The end result was a somewhat disappointing early exit in the first round of the NCAA tournament for a program that has experienced March success in the last decade.
The low point of the season occurred in the tropical Bahamas during Thanksgiving weekend in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Up 15 on upstart Iowa in a game that felt like it was in March rather than November, the Musketeers had a second half collapse, losing in overtime as star Semaj Christon watched the closing minutes cramping on the bench. After a freshman season where leg cramps were a common occurrence, the Iowa game was the only time Christon missed time with cramps in his sophomore campaign. The team was unable to get over the loss and dropped contests in the next two days. The first, to Tennessee, was a rematch of a game at the Cintas Center seventeen days earlier won by Xavier. A day later, a loss to USC, who would finish 2-16 in the Pac 12, rounded off another forgettable exempt tournament.
The struggles continued when the Musketeers returned to Cincinnati, as the two free throws from the 66% shooter Christon were needed to force overtime against a poor Bowling Green team and a win over Evansville required overcoming a 10 point second half deficit. Pulling out those two wins avoided the moral of the team to go into total disarray and excitement returned to the team and fan base following a 64-47 pummeling of crosstown rival Cincinnati at downtown’s US Bank Arena. Xavier made 11 of 16 threes against the Bearcats and out-toughed Mick Cronin’s squad, winning the rebounding battle 33-20.
The win in the Crosstown Classic was the third of eight in a row that included three home wins to begin Big East play. From there, Xavier primarily won its home games and lost the majority of toss-up road games. The home loss to Seton Hall sticks out as an opportunity lost, as the Musketeers likely avoid the First Four in Dayton with a victory over the Pirates. Horrendous defensive efforts cost the X-men road opportunities at Providence, Marquette, and Georgetown.
The defensive struggles were a common theme all year. Per Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings, Chris Mack’s team ranked 88th nationally in defensive efficiency, the worst mark in Mack’s five seasons guiding the Musketeers. Mack’s pack-line philosophy means his teams will never force a large volume of turnovers, and typically will rebound the ball well following an opponent’s miss. Those two metrics, turnover % and defensive rebounding, were consistent with marks in prior Mack seasons. The poor defensive efficiency was due to a drop in 3-point defense, as opponents shot 35.2% on the season against a coach whose opponents typically hover around the 32% mark.
It is hard to exactly pinpoint a reason for the struggles defending the perimeter. A common talking point throughout the season was Xavier not being able to identify and close out on shooters in transition. Another was the lack of elite 3-point defenders; Xavier had shorter guards and slow post players. Lastly, some players simply made shots they failed to convert at any other time during the season. For example, Marquette’s Steve Taylor was 2-2 behind the arc against the Musketeers, 0-11 against everyone else. Is that bad defense, or smart strategy in letting a poor shooter take a low percentage shot? Regardless, a key to success in 2014-15 will be locking down behind the arc. The perimeter question is one of many questions heading into the offseason. Some others include..
Will Semaj Christon declare for the NBA draft?
Christon has been considered an elite NBA prospect ever since he arrived on campus. The combination of his length and athleticism has drawn interest of NBA scouts, who were frequently seen at Xavier games this winter. The knock on the sophomore has always been his shooting. While his three point percentage was a respectable 38.8% this season, it included a mere 49 attempts. A 66.8% free throw clip show that Christon is below average shooter at this stage in his career. Semaj would benefit from a summer of working on his peremiter jump shot, but if he is guaranteed to be a first round draft pick, it is hard to ignore that volume of money. NBAdraft.net currently has Christon projected as a late first round pick. If that remains, Xavier fans should plan on no Christon next season.
How will scholarships be allocated?
With five incoming freshman, Xavier has currently oversigned by two scholarships. Assuming Christon departs for the NBA, Mack will need to have one more player roll off scholarship in 2014-15. The obvious answer is freshman Kamall Richards, a freshman who tore his ACL in January. Mack was critical of Richards’ work ethic in practice when he was healthy, and the freshman did not see a lot of playing time this season. It would make sense that the New Jersey native would be the first encourage to look elsewhere. Beware of Justin Martin, who will graduate in May after being a partial qualifier his freshman season. Martin could take the route of Mark Lyons and take advantage of the fifth year transfer rule and be eligible to play somewhere else next season. Like Lyons, losing Martin would be a difficult personnel loss to overcome next season.
How good is this 2014 class?
Mack’s five man class is currently ranked 15th nationally by Rivals.com and includes four Rivals150 players in Trevon Blueitt (45), Makinde London (79), J.P. Macura (104), and Edmond Sumner (133). Blueitt is a former UCLA commit who brings good size at 6-5 while being able to play the 2 or 3. Recruiting players that are Blueitt’s size will help with 3-point defense over time, as he has the size and athleticism to become an elite defender.
London is a raw and athletic power forward, a smaller version of Jalen Reynolds. Like Reynolds, London may need some time to develop. Macura has been an elite scorer as a prep athlete in Minnesota; he draws comparisons to players like Gordon Heyward, Sumner is a skinny combo guard that comes from an elite prep program in Detroit County Day; a school that has produced Chris Webber and Shane Battier. The fifth signee, Sean O’Mara will take some time to develop, but went head to head with Duke signee Jahlil Okafor in a close loss in the Illinois High School Association 4A championship game.
While the class is ranked high, Mack has been hesitant to play freshman in his time as Xavier’s head coach. Many observers thought class of 2010’s Jay Canty would contribute as a freshman, but Canty averaged 7.4 minutes his freshman campaign before transferring to Appalacian State, where he averaged 12.3 points per game as a junior in 2013-14. The biggest exception to Mack’s lack of playing freshman is Dez Wells, who played 26 minutes per game as a freshman before being wrongfully expelled and transferring to Maryland. (Imagine this season’s team with Wells). While Blueitt has the biggest chance to make an immediate impact in 2014-15, Xavier fans should not overdo expectations with this class in regards to next season.
Who will play power forward?
With the loss of Isaiah Philmore’s 25 minutes, Xavier’s biggest positional void for 2014-15 is at power forward. James Farr is the best suited for this role, as he has good size and the ability to stretch defenses as a perimeter threat. Farr saw his minutes get limited as last season progressed, most likely due to his poor defensive skills. For Farr to be effective in 2014-15, he would benefit from a conditioning program that would improve foot speed, enabling him to combo 4s like Villanova’s JayVaughn Pinkston.
If not one player emerges in 2014-15 as the starter at power forward, expect a rotation of Farr and London, with Martin (who is better suited at 3) and Reynolds (better suited at 5) contributing minutes based on matchups. This would be a perfect year for Mack to add a 5th year transfer, a la Andre Walker, to fill the void at the 4, but the scholarship situation does not allow for that flexibility.
Player Grades for 2013-14
Dee Davis (D – A D for Dee!): Constantly praised by his players and teammates, I do not think Xavier is capable of having an elite team if Davis is playing 31 minutes a game. Dee shot 23.1% in Xavier’s 13 losses this season, including a banner week in the Bahamas that saw him shoot 1-15 with nine turnovers against six assists. For the most part Davis did his damage against weaker opponents; 15 against Miami (OH), 12 against Butler, 17 vs. Depaul. College basketball has become a sport where the point guard position is important to a team’s success. Davis is a decent Atlantic 10 point guard, but does not have the athleticism to be elite in a power conference. The season ending loss to NC State saw Davis be outplayed by Tyler Lewis, who looks like he could still be in middle school. Interesting side note; one of Xavier’s best wins this season – against Tennessee, was with Davis sidelined with a concussion.
Semaj Christon (A-): Christon went through a stretch this season where he was an elite defender, unselfish player, and efficient scorer. From December 21st to midway through a January 9th contest with Marquette, the sophomore had 25 assists to one turnover. Semaj was a unanimous all-Big East first teamer, and finished the season averaging 17 points per game. Near the end of the season, it appeared Christon was pressing too much, attempting 18, 22, 13, 21, and 11 shots in his last five games, well above his season average of 12.4 shots per game. Christon is likely gone to the NBA, but his return would be huge for Xavier’s hopes in 2014-15. Ideally, Semaj would slide to point guard, the position he best fits in the NBA, and be joined by Indiana transfer Remy Abell and Justin Martin on the wings. This would limit Davis’ minutes and make Xavier an elite defensive team on the perimeter.
Justin Martin (B+): Inconsistent for his first two and a half seasons, Martin finally showed he can be relied on as a scorer in Big East play. The junior averaged 14.2 points in conference play, with a shooting line of .500/.402/.818. If he can replicate those numbers as a senior, he can play a similar role that Villanova’s James Bell played this season.
Isaiah Philmore (B): Chris Mack got toughness and grit from the former Towson transfer, who will be leave a large void at power forward. While his statistics were nothing special, Philmore provided experience on the floor, and was an efficient offensive player and good rebounder.
Matt Stainbrook (A): The Musketeer offense was at its best when it went through "Stain Train", who is a high level passes in the post, especially when faced with a double team. Opponents found as the season went along that its actually best to play Stainbrook straight up, forcing him to make an individual move and score, rather than letting him pass and force the defense into recovery mode. Stainbrook’s MCL strain that forced him to miss two games makes you wonder if Xavier would have won at Seton Hall or against Villanova, which would have removed them from consideration for a first four game.
Myles Davis (C-): The freshman got splattered on the freshman wall at the end of the season, ending the campaign in a miserable 1-22 slump from the behind the arc. Davis did have his moments; closing out a win over Tennessee with clutch free throws and a go-ahead three to cap of a comeback against Georgetown. Davis shot 25% from 3 in conference play; that is unacceptable for a player that is on the floor strictly for shooting.
Jalen Reynolds (C): The 17 point, 16 rebound performance in a road win against St. John’s shows how much potential Reynolds oozes. Still, Jeff Robinson showed games of potential in his time as a Musketeer, but fans never were able to see consistent output from the wiry athlete. Reynolds needs to stay out of foul trouble and shore up his off-court problems that led to a mid-season suspension. Few players have the athleticism of Reynolds, and he has the potential for a sophomore breakout season. His freshman year was simply average.
James Farr (C+): After sitting on the bench for the majority of his freshman year, Farr saw an immediate increase in minutes his sophomore season. Much is made of Farr’s perimeter shooter, but the power forward did shoot 61% on 2-point attempts, and was second to Reynolds in offensive rebounding percentage. Farr needs to improve on defense to see more minutes; at this point, he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of athletic stretch 4s.
Brandon Randolph (C): The freshman showed potential early in the season, opening the season with a 12 point, 7 assist performance. He then played 39 minutes in a home win against Tennessee. When Dee Davis returned from injury, Randolph eventually was relegated to bench duty, and his minutes were cut to single digits in the last seven contests. Randolph has potential – a good combination of poise and skill, but needs to be more aggressive offensively to see more minutes.
Chris Mack (B): Mack said the NCAA tournament is not a birth right, and the Musketeers returned after a one year break. The first round appearance and exit was disappointing, and below Xavier’s standards, but the talent level of this team was fringe NCAA. I’m giving Mack a pass on the three point defense this season, his prior teams have been better in that category with the same system. The university took a hit when Dez Wells was expelled, something out of Mack’s control. This team was missing a player of Wells’ size and ability on the perimeter, something it will get when Remy Abell sees the floor after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. The 2014-15 season’s success depends primarily on Semaj Christon’s NBA decision. If he returns, Xavier should be wearing white jerseys in a second round game next March. If he takes his talents to the NBA, expect a similar season.