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Big East 2015-16 Season Preview: Xavier Musketeers

Even without Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis, Xavier will be one of the best teams in the Big East yet again thanks to some emerging stars and the steady coaching hand of Chris Mack.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

2014-15 Record

23-14 (9-9 Big East), lost to Villanova in the Big East Tournament title game and Arizona in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Has now won at least 21 games in nine of the last 10 seasons. Has not had a losing season since 1996. In addition, Xavier has been to the Sweet 16 in four of the last seven years.


Its year seven of the Chris Mack era. Clearly, as you might have noticed a few sentences ago, things have been going extremely well. Mack took over at his Alma mater in 2009, following in the footsteps of Sean Miller, who helped lift the X to new heights.

Mack, who was an assistant under Miller for five years, has done nothing but keep the good times rolling. Other than a 17-14 hiccup in 2012, Mack has driven the Musketeers to the NCAA Tournament every season.

Now seven years removed from Miller's reign, Mack is working with a roster entirely his own., Last year, his squad was just a few bounces away from helping lead Xavier into the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004.

In terms of Big East success, Xavier has been in the thick of a largely competitive conference these last two seasons. The Musketeers finished 9-9 in league play last year, following a 10-8 finish in its first campaign away from the Atlantic 10, a conference they consistently dominated.

Next on Mack's to-do list should be getting them to do the same thing in the Big East.

Key Returnees

Trevon Bluiett (11.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.9 APG, 28.3 MPG,.422/..326/.746)

Myles Davis (10.6 PPG, 2.1 APG, 26.9 MPG, .394/.384/.872)

Jalen Reynolds (9.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 20.3 MPG, .618/.000/.663)

Remy Abell (8.4 PPG, 27.6 MPG, .489/.411/.713)

James Farr (4.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 15.6 MPG, .427/.289/.469)

J.P. Macura (5.4 PPG, 13.2 MPG, .413/.337/.762)

Key Departures

Matt Stainbrook (Graduated; 12.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, .613/.200/.764, several wonderful vines, Uber rides to many in the greater Cincinnati area)

Dee Davis (Graduated; 9.0 PPG, 7.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 32.8 MPG, .404/.321/.721)


Edmond Sumner (redshirt freshman; played in six games before being shutdown for medical reasons)

Kaiser Gates (4-star recruit)

Ashanti Burgess (First-year walk-on)

Projected Starting Lineup

PG  Myles Davis

SG Remy Abell

SF Trevon Bluiett

PF James Farr

C  Jalen Reynolds

Key Nonconference Matchups

Nov. 20 at Michigan

Dec. 5 vs. Western Kentucky

Dec. 12 vs. Cincinnati

Last Season at a Glance

Coming off a 21-win campaign that featured a trip, albeit it a quick one, to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, Xavier was ready to build on that success last year. The Musketeers are in a similar position now, although the challenge has increased because of how well the 2015 season ended. That's not to say the entirely of the 2014-15 campaign was a cake walk. In fact, it was far from it.

The journey began where most do for the Musketeers, in the Cintas Center. Playing four straight games at home to start off the year, Xavier sprinted out to a 4-0 mark, adding up solid wins over mid-major powers like Stephen F. Austin and Murray State along the way. At the time, Jalen Reynolds was carving out his role off the bench, Trevon Bluiett was dropping jaws as a freshman and Matt Stainbrook was establishing himself once again as a low-post offensive aficionado.

After a nice opening slate of home games, the X looked to the western horizon and traveled to the Golden State. It improved to 5-0 with an 82-71 win over San Diego in the Wooden Legacy, but the rest of the trip to the left coast was less sunny, with tough losses to Texas-El Paso and Long Beach State ending dreams of a perfect season before it even began to cross the mind of even the most fervent (or insane) Xavier fans.

A return to the familiar settings of Cincinnati, Ohio helped Xavier recuperate. The Musketeers smacked Alabama around and ran over IUPUI to earn eight wins in their first 10 contests. Run-ins with SEC teams kept coming, with trips to Missouri and Auburn next on the slate. Missouri proved to be nothing to worry about, as Xavier pounded the Tigers 74-58. The Auburn breed had much more bite. In arguably the most exhausting game of the season, both physically and emotionally for either squad, Auburn pulled out an 89-88 win in double overtime.

The Auburn marathon was the second-to-last non-league game before Big East action got underway. Xavier was able to wash out the taste of double-overtime defeat with a win over Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 28, giving it three days of preparation and a little momentum for its Big East opener against Georgetown, considered by many to be the heir apparent to heavy league favorite Villanova.

Jalen Reynolds and James Farr bullied the normally solid Georgetown front court to the tune of 26 points and 14 rebounds combined, with Farr also blocking three shots. The interior dominance led to an easy 70-53 win, one of three the X would have against the Hoyas during the season.

With such a dominant win in its back pocket, Xavier had the appearance of a team to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, inconsistent play throughout the league schedule kept prognosticators on the fence throughout the regular season. Xavier lost three of its next four games following the matchup with Georgetown, including a road loss to DePaul. They failed to ever really get in a groove, winning consecutive games in league play as many times as they lost back-to-back contests. All in all, the X was walking a dangerous line in terms of the NCAA Tournament right around the time it escaped with a 74-73 win over Creighton in the regular season finale.

With its own destiny essentially in its hands, Xavier got set for the Big East Tournament. A solid showing in the tourney would likely push Xavier off the bubble and into the field of 68. As with most Big East battles, Xavier fought tooth and nail through the first two rounds, topping Butler in overtime before holding on for an escape act that would impress David Blaine against Georgetown in the semifinals. The Big East title game featured less drama, as the X was bounced by Villanova. Still, the guttural performance against Butler and Georgetown, two definite in's for the Big Dance, was the last push Xavier needed. When Selection Sunday came to a close, the Musketeers were set up as the No. 6 seed in the West Region.

Some might argue the Musketeers had an easy road in the first couple rounds of the NCAA tourney. They routed No. 11 seed Mississippi just days after the Rebels survived against BYU. Then, upstart Georgia State, a No. 14 seed, fell to Stainbrook and company. Regardless of the perceived strength, or lack thereof, of their opponents, Xavier was the last Big East team standing in the NCAA Tournament. In the process, Stainbrook had become an overnight sensation, as fans everywhere clamored to figure out how a man with the Stain Train's build could tip toe and finish so lightly in the paint.

In the Sweet 16, Xavier faced off with No. 2 seed Arizona and nearly got itself fitted for a glass slipper. The Musketeers led for much of the second half, but finally ran out of gas in the end, with Arizona finishing off the game by outscoring the Musketeers 19-7 over the final six or so minutes.

Reasons for Optimism

1. You're my boy, Bluiett: If you listened to the Xavier Preview Hangout from a a couple weeks ago, you may have noticed that I am all in on Bluiett this season. While his numbers were not otherworldly in his freshman season, the 6-foot-6 swingman from Indianapolis boasted solid production and a major leap forward should be expected. Don't even mention the words sophomore slump around this guy, as Bluiett should be challenging for All-Big East first team honors and, if everything breaks his way, he could even have something to say to Kris Dunn about the Player of the Year trophy.

2. Jalen Reynolds and James Farr: Last season, Farr began the year as the secondary big man to Stainbrook, but he eventually lost minutes to Reynolds, who became a more important piece as the season went on. The move made sense, as Reynolds' aggressive play on defense filled in the weaker points of Stainbrook's arsenal. Farr still played an important part, ranking third on the team in rebounds (5.3 RPG). Farr's role will expand this season with Stainbrook gone.

Reynolds has the chance to benefit from Stainbrook's departure as well. His praises have been sung by many already and he has the tools to be a dominant big man on both ends. His offensive polish is a bit better than you might think, as he was tied with Stainbrook for the team-lead in PER (25.3) and the leader in effective field goal percentage (.618). Of course, he rarely had to create his own offense, so it remains to be seen how much of those numbers were just influenced by the easier shots he was given.

3. Mack's Emphasis on Offensive Efficiency: You don't become one of the most respected coaches in the Big East without having a strong culture and an ability to foster success. Mack has done so with an emphasis on offensive efficiency. Last year, Xavier ranked 26th in the country in field goal percentage (.475), and fourth in assists (596). Much of that had to do with Dee Davis (7.3 APG) running the point, but Myles Davis and Remy Abell are solid passers, as is Bluiett. It helps that Xavier rarely settles for bad shots, attempting the 39th most shots from inside the arc (1,345) last season, while shooting the 18th-best percentage from 2-point range (.537).

Reasons for Pessimism

1. Replacing Stainbrook and Davis: The argument could be made that losing Davis will be even tougher than Stainbrook. Davis ran the Xavier offense and kept it humming. His distributing skills were among the best in the Big East and without him, the Musketeers are lacking a true point guard.

Obviously, Stainbrook's absence will be noticeable, especially if Reynolds or Farr don't live up to expectations. The team's primary scoring option, Stainbrook was extremely adept at finishing around the rim and was also a solid passer and rebounder.

2. Is Abell Able?: Abell is one of three eligible seniors on the roster. He played in 34 games last season, his first as a Musketeer and was a solid contributor. He was not asked to do a whole lot, however, especially on offense where he served the role of 3-point gunner, spreading the floor by moving around the arc waiting for open looks when teams collapsed on Stainbrook, Reynolds, Farr or one of the driving guards. With Davis gone, Abell will need to step up and be more of a ball handler.

3. Weak Bench: Xavier's starting five is a strong group with plenty of proven contributors. A few of them, Reynolds and Bluiett in particular, are expected to make great strides this season. However, the bench is a bit thin in terms of production. J.P. Macura is the only returning reserve that played more than 30 games or 10 minutes per contest.

Best Case Scenario

We'll be realistic here. Xavier is a program on the rise and has been for a while, but it still isn't a squad that has a national championship run in it. That doesn't mean its goals shouldn't be lofty this season. With St. John's weaker and Providence losing LaDontae Henton, the conference has become a bit less power-packed, although improving Marquette and Creighton make it a more balanced league competitively. Still, Xavier's main competition will be Villanova, Georgetown and Butler. Looking at the year through a rose-colored crystal ball would see Bluiett and Reynolds becoming the college version of early 2000s Kobe and Shaq, with Abell and Macura draining 3s left and right and Myles Davis keeping everyone engaged.

A perfect non-conference schedule would lift Xavier into the national rankings in time for Big East play, where a few stumbles on the road is all that hampers the Musketeers as they grab the No. 2 seed in the Big East Tournament, which it wins with a herculean effort from Bluiett in a title game rematch against Villanova. The Musketeers enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed and return to the Sweet 16 once again.

Worst Case Scenario

The Musketeers look lost on offense, as Reynolds and Farr become shells of themselves offensively without Stainbrook keeping opposing defenses occupied. Bluiett succumbs to the dreaded sophomore slump and Myles Davis and Remy Abell become turnover machines without Dee Davis running the point. The Musketeers lose a few winnable games and every challenging game in non-league play and get slammed by the top half of the Big East en route to a 6-12 record in conference play. A swift exit in the Big East Tournament ends a disappointing season.

2014-15 Outlook

That worst case scenario isn't really the floor for this team. It is a Fallout-level catastrophe. In reality, Xavier's floor is rather high, with 18-20 wins and an NCAA Tournament bid all but a certainty, assuming good health. Reaching higher will take some doing, but not anything out of the realm of possibility. Bluiett and Reynolds have all the makings of stars and the amount of strength in the starting five, even with the departures of Dee Davis and Stainbrook, make for a team that will be competitive with any team, any night.

Xavier will get plenty of tests to prove themselves, including matchups at Michigan and against Cincinnati, as well as a possible showdown with Wichita State should things work out that way in the AdvoCare Invitational. Then there is the always difficult Big East schedule, which has very few breaks thanks to the overall health of the league.
In all, with Villanova the favorite until proven otherwise, Xavier is a team that will be in the thick of things when it comes to the No. 2 spot in the conference and a likely member of this year's field of 68 in the NCAA Tournament.