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2017-18 Xavier Musketeers Big East Season Preview

The Musketeers return a lot from a squad that went to the Elite Eight a year ago. That, plus a touted recruiting class makes Xavier very dangerous.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Xavier v Florida State Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

XAVIER MUSKETEERS SEASON PREVIEW

2016-17 record

24-14, (9-9 Big East), lost to Gonzaga in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament.


Key Returnees

Player Year 2016 Stats/Notes
Trevon Bluiett Sr. 18.5 PPG, team-high 5.3 RPG, Preseason All-Big East
J.P. Macura Sr. 14.4 PPG, 11.1 Shots Per Game, Preseason Big East Honorable Mention
Quentin Goodin So. 7.2 PPG, 3.0 APG In Games He Started, 26.5 TO%
Sean O'Mara Jr. 6.1 PPG, 60.7 FG%, 18/7 In Round of 64 Win Over Maryland
Tyrique Jones So. 4.2 PPG, 11.2 Reb/40 min, Started All 4 NCAA Tournament Games
Kaiser Gates Jr. 5.8 PPG, 33.8 3P%, Took 72.4% of Shots From Three

Key Departures

Player Departure Reason 2016 Stats/Notes
RaShid Gaston Graduation 7.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, Started 18 Games
Edmond Sumner Declared for NBA Draft 14.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 52nd Pick in 2017 NBA Draft
Malcolm Bernard Graduation 6.6 PPG, 39.3 3P%, 28 MPG

Additions

Player 247Sports Composite Rankings Notes
Paul Scruggs 4-star, 33rd Ovr, 7th Pos, 5th St (Indiana) High-Level Recruit, Could Play Behind or Alongside Goodin
Naji Marshall 4-star, 57th Ovr, 14th Pos, 2nd St (Maryland) 6'6", 214 lbs., Athletic Frontcourt Contributor
Elias Harden 3-star, 135th Ovr, 28th Pos, 14th St (Georgia) Best 3-Point Shooter of the Newcomers
Kerem Kanter Transfer from UW-Green Bay 11.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 50.7 FG% Last Season at UW-Green Bay


Coach

Six straight losses in conference play last season almost struck down Xavier. Point guard Edmond Sumner was gone for the year. Leading scorer Trevon Bluiett was limping around. Coach Chris Mack was admittedly nervous: Xavier was about to play last place DePaul, a less intimidating opponent but an ominous spoiler.

Then, Bluiett scored 24, Xavier won 79-65, and Chris Mack was overjoyed.

“We were at DePaul, 8-9 in the conference,” he reflected three weeks later after Xavier’s first NCAA Tournament win. “We needed to win that game. The weight of the world on our guys' shoulders. They don't know this but there's a coachers locker room and players locker room at Allstate Arena.

“After we won the game, usually the players they go in their room and we go in ours as coaches. And I closed the door, and our coaching staff is in there, and I started jumping up and down and up and down saying, we won, we won, we won.”

Sorry, Louisville, this guy isn’t going anywhere.


Projected Starting Lineup

Quentin Goodin

J.P. Macura

Trevon Bluiett

Kaiser Gates

Tyrique Jones


Key Nonconference Matchups

at Wisconsin Badgers, 11/16

Las Vegas Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, November 23-4

vs. Baylor Bears, 11/28

vs. Cincinnati Bearcats, 12/2


Last Season at a Glance

In college basketball, the coach speaks like an archetypal optimist; he turns analysis into clichés. Players are always completely capable, and success always seems inevitable. They just need the ball to bounce their way next time after they work on it in practice.

That’s what made Chris Mack’s reflection of Xavier’s 2017 tournament run surprising. Even he said that last season went better than he expected after Myles Davis left the program, Edmond Sumner tore his ACL, and Xavier fell from No. 7 in the country to the tournament bubble.

“I told them out in the real world life is going to hand you lemons, and you can pout about it and figure out how to make lemonade,” he said after Xavier was eliminated by Gonzaga in the Elite Eight. “Our guys, despite all the adversity they've been hit with and the social media that tells them how bad they are and how poor they are, they stayed with it, and they believed in themselves.”

It helps that senior Trevon Bluiett, Xavier’s leading scorer, never seems to lack self-confidence. He said he saw the basket getting bigger when he averaged 25 points per game in Xavier’s tournament wins.

When the season started, though, Bluiett had a star co-pilot: Sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner. Xavier was 13-2 in games they both started, and his injury put freshman Quentin Goodin, the only other point guard on the roster, in charge. Mack admitted that he threw Goodin into the fire, and Xavier lost three straight to Villanova, Butler, and Creighton, the top three teams in the conference at the time.

Xavier rebounded with wins against Georgetown, Seton Hall, and Creighton, but then Blueitt hurt his ankle against Villanova and an NCAA Tournament appearance looked to be in jeopardy.

A victory against DePaul to close the season eased the Musketeers’ pain, and a memorable victory over Butler in the Big East Tournament solidified their spot in the madness. Blueitt literally flexed his muscles on the MSG floor after hitting an iconic shot from the right elbow to give Xavier a 62-57 win.

The next night, Creighton’s Marcus Foster hit a game-winning 3-point shot that eliminated Xavier in New York.

Though the loss gave the Musketeers a worse chance at an easier path in the tournament, Chris Mack said later that seeding didn’t matter anyway. He was right.

“You're only an underdog if you feel like you're the lesser team,” he said before Xavier’s Sweet 16 matchup against two-seed Arizona. “ I don't feel that way about our guys and I don't think they feel that way about each other.”

In their first round game against Maryland, Bluiett scored 16 second half points in a comeback win. He made four second half threes and nailed a few late baskets to put the game away. After, he spoke with the swagger of a potential All American.

"Once I get a couple to go in and get a rhythm going then everything starts to fall," said Bluiett, the Musketeers' leading scorer. "Everything you shoot just feels good."

As if he couldn’t play any better, Bluiett scored 29 points against Florida State with lottery pick Jonathan Isaac guarding him for most of the game. Xavier’s changing zone defenses kept the ball out the hands of FSU’s post playmakers, and Xavier limited the free-flowing Seminoles to just 10 assists. Xavier won by 25.

Even Mack said he was surprised by Xavier’s quality of play that let them put in the walk-ons to close out the game.

Things were more competitive in the Sweet 16. Their 73-71 win against Arizona cemented Sean O’Mara in Xavier lore. He posted up on Lauri Markkanen in the post (like NBA centers will thrive doing for the next ten years) to give the Musketeers a two point lead, and Bluiett again led Xavier with 25 points on just 17 shots.

The Musketeers were back in the Elite Eight.

Xavier’s season ended two days later against Gonzaga, a team without a great shooter that shot 50 percent from beyond the arc against the Musketeers. Mack said he stayed on the court to watch Gonzaga cut the nets, fueling the fire for a future tournament run.


Best Case Scenario

Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, taught us to aim for 3-point shots, free throws, and layups with our offensive possessions. Last season, Bluiett took the most threes in the conference and made the most threes. He took the most free throws in the conference and made the third most. He was seventh in the Big East in eFG% and shot even better in the second half.

Bluiett’s statistics last season look like a model for Morey-esque efficiency. However, Quinten Goodin was Xavier’s only point guard at season’s end and their bench was composed solely of big men. Everyone but Goodin truly profiled as a small forward, power forward, or center. They were a big team masquerading as a pace and space bunch.

In 2017, Xavier adds Paul Scruggs, a 6-3 point guard who has Sumner’s quickness, as well as Elias Harden and Naji Marshall, two more athletic wings who are capable shooters. Xavier will be able to go small for extended stretches for the first time since Sumner went down.

While Quentin Goodin (25.5 3P%, 24 TO%) isn’t the same model of consistency as Bluiett, he becomes Xavier’s best wing defender (1.5 steals per forty minutes) and can take the best opposing perimeter threats Xavier will face. That includes Cane Broome, Manu Lecomte, Jalen Brunson, and Markus Howard.

This year, he’ll play more than 30 minutes per game, and he’ll continue to stand out as an initiator (fifth most assists in the Big East last season) and, more importantly, on the defensive end.

Floor spacing, turnover-probing, and transition finishing are significant for a basketball team in 2017. This season, Xavier will get even better at running the floor.

The Musketeers take their annual loss at Villanova but bounce back and win the Big East.


Worst Case

Last season, J.P. Macura ranked in the Big East’s Top 10 in the following categories: Games, minutes, shots, three point attempts, free throws, assists, steals, and turnovers. He played the most minutes in the conference. This season, he’ll have to do things more efficiently.

After Sumner got hurt last season, Goodin averaged around 35 minutes per game. One of the reasons that Goodin played so frequently, though, was Xavier’s struggles without a point guard on the floor. Macura couldn’t fill the void. He averaged sixteen shots per game during Xavier’s six game losing streak, compared to ten in postseason play. Xavier only won three games (Lehigh, Clemson, Georgetown) last season in games he took more than eleven shots.

If Xavier increases its pace this season, do they leave Sean O’Mara (60.7 FG%) and his affective post touches behind? How do him and Kerem Kanter both stay in rhythm?

With only three rebounds per game in conference play last season, can Tyrique Jones handle the load with a smaller big man rotation. He only played 11 minutes per game last season, how will longer stretches of playing time affect his play?

The Musketeers take their annual loss to Villanova as a part of another six game losing streak. Much like 2014, Xavier’s last season with Edmond Sumner, they stumble into the NCAA Tournament.


Prediction

Xavier finishes with 25 wins and a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

They say that shooters shoot, and Bluiett fits the description. He’ll continue to lead the Musketeers, peeling off one down screen at a time for yet another shot without a hand in his face.