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Big East Christmas Lists: Xavier Musketeers

What does Santa need to bring the Musketeers for Big East play?

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

For the Xavier Musketeers, last season was a year full of oddities. A series of unfortunate events struck the Musketeers, but nevertheless, the team rallied around the stellar play of Trevon Bluiett down the stretch to reach its third Elite Eight appearance in program history.

The first big news of the season came with Myles Davis, who had solidified himself as a team leader and starter. In the summer leading up to last season, Davis had off the court issues that ultimately resulted in his indefinite suspension from the team. Eventually, fans rejoiced as he made his return to the floor, but coming off the bench, he looked lost and severely out of form. After just three games, he left the program.

Right at the beginning of conference play, Trevon Bluiett sprained his ankle, which actually forced him out of play for a few games and even when he did return to action, it took him a while before he was playing 100 percent healthy.

Then, came the bombshell. In the team’s Jan. 29 game against St. John’s, explosive point guard Edmond Sumner drove to the basket and came down awkwardly providing a cringe-worthy replay. Later, the prognosis speculated that he had torn his ACL and to the dismay of many Xavier fans, he was ruled out with the injury that required season-ending surgery.

Sumner’s injury paired with the inconsistent play of the big men forced Chris Mack’s hand leading to Xavier starting two true freshmen, Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones. While Goodin originally needed some game experience to adjust to a role that he was, for all intents and purposes, not supposed to assume fully until this season, Jones was plagued by foul trouble early in games which kept him off the court. In postseason action, both Goodin and Jones grew into their own and provided a spark to the Musketeers lineup.

Last season, Xavier was also a team that almost didn’t even qualify for the NCAA Tournament. A late six-game skid was almost the tragic downfall of this squad, but a signature victory late in the season over the then No. 2 seed Butler in the Big East Tournament prompted Xavier’s inclusion into the bracket. In fact, Xavier was the very last team to be announced in the tournament selection show.

This season, things around Norwood, Ohio seem to be a lot more tranquil, serene even, as the Musketeers are ranked ninth in the country enjoying an 11-1 record. Despite some flirtation with the pros, Trevon Bluiett announced his return to the program to complete his senior season. J.P. Macura also returned to Xavier and the team has certainly been bolstered by the experience of these two senior leaders.

Hopes were and are still high in the Queen City after Xavier completed what was dubbed the “revenge tour” avenging loses from last year to Baylor, Cincinnati and Colorado. It also defeated Wisconsin, exacting revenge on a Badger team that dropped a dagger in a heartbreaking second-round loss in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The team will have to fight to come out of non-conference play with just one loss as they face off against a tournament team that they beat twice last season.

This season’s Xavier Musketeers squad has all the makings of a team destined to unseat perennial powerhouse Villanova in the Big East and even make another run in March Madness. With the holiday season coming up, here are a few Christmas wishes for the season.

Wish #1: A Clean Bill of Health

Lately, the Musketeers have been banged up a bit. J.P. Macura was ruled out of the game against Marshall after experiencing blurred vision and so was Kaiser Gates with dizziness. To make matters worse, Naji Marshall went down with an apparent back injury to close the half against Marshall. That left Xavier without two everyday starters and a rotation guy. Last year, Xavier was also hit with the injury bug most critically after Edmond Sumner went down for the latter half of the season and after Trevon Bluiett sprained his ankle. Additionally, Gates had a couple of minor setbacks that led to an offseason knee operation. Xavier, as many teams are, is at its strongest with every player being healthy and recently, that has not been the case. Needless to say, this team is not the same without two scorers in Macura and Gates, yet the players who filled in for them were able to scrounge two victories in their absence. The last game against Marshall provided a perspective of what the lineup might look like come next season minus Kerem Kanter, Sean O’Mara and Bluiett, but for the Musketeers to see success in the long run, they need to be healthy. None of the injuries to Macura, Gates, or Marshall seem to be the kind that will keep them out for long (at least for right now), but Xavier will definitely need these players on the floor in Big East play.

Wish #2: Keep Up the Scoring Efficiency

At one point, Xavier ranked second in the nation in field goal percentage, but that has since fallen to the fourth spot at 52.2 percent, which is still not something to scoff at. The Musketeers also score on average 88 points per game. Both of these measures stack up to be metrics for success. The team also ranks 13th in overall KenPom ratings and more specifically, fourth in offense at least before the Marshall game. So far this season, total offensive production hasn’t been an issue, but rather the timeliness of the offense in terms of streakiness. In other words, the productive offense allows Xavier to control the lead in most games, but then all of a sudden stagnates permits the opposition to dwindle down the lead, which in the Marshall game almost led to an upset. Occurrences of that nature shouldn’t happen against mid-major opponents, but that recent issue should be fixed once Macura and Gates return to the starting lineup.

Wish #3: Continue to shoot well from the charity stripe

Last season, one of the biggest issues for the Musketeers was the inability to shoot well from the free throw line. They posted a downright inexcusable 68.8 percent from the free throw line last season. This season, they are doing much better in the same category with a 79.8 free throw percentage thus far. Free throws are free for a reason and teams should take advantage of them, especially with the NCAA rule specifications that warrant more fouls being called. Last year, Xavier straight up missed what amounted to be double-digit range free throws which resulted in a few losses that shouldn’t have happened. Apparently, this problem has been resolved and woes have ended.

Wish #4: Kerem Kanter Staying Hot

Grad transfer Kerem Kanter has been a spectacular addition to an already experienced bunch. Despite the sluggish start, he has really come up big of late providing a spark off the bench. He’s not your typical big man. He can post up like a traditional big if need be but also seems to be comfortable from the perimeter taking a jumpshot. Xavier fans could also notice that he has the ability to handle the ball exceptionally well for a player his size. At this point in the season, he has registered five double-digit performances and while stepping into a starter role for the first time against Marshall, collected his first double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Without any doubt, Kanter adds both versatility and depth to the Xavier frontcourt and if he continues to play well, has the potential to be a matchup nightmare for almost any team.

Wish #5: Let’s See More of the 1-3-1

Chris Mack broke out the 1-3-1 zone defense earlier in the season, but only in glimpses. In the come-from-behind victory against ETSU, Xavier erased a 22 point deficit utilizing the 1-3-1 in the second half which really shut down the Bucs offense and against Marshall, the Musketeers primarily used the zone defense. I don’t doubt that Xavier can’t defend man-to-man, but I also really like the 1-3-1 look. The zone works especially well with the scrappy Macura causing chaos at the top of the zone and the lengthy Marshall also wreaked havoc against Marshall. In a pinch, Quentin Goodin also headed the point in the zone and left his athleticism and incredible on-ball defensive skills to take over. Perhaps Mack won’t rely on the zone in the future, but at least he knows it is in the team’s back pocket.

The Musketeers have taken care of the teams that they were expected to beat and were able to come away with two home victories against top 25 opponents. The true test though is looming with a grueling Big East Conference schedule beginning next week. All signs point to the Musketeers landing a top 3 spot in the conference and a high tournament seed, but they control their own destiny, which is large, will be determined by conference play. As for now, winning is Xavier’s forte, and hopefully, that trend will continue.