XAVIER MUSKETEERS SEASON PREVIEW
Travis Steele (0-0, first year)
After years of rumors and reports, Chris Mack finally left Xavier for the greener pastures of Louisville.
Whether or not it was the correct move for Mack remains to be seen, but the Musketeers acted quickly and effectively in promoting Travis Steele, Mack’s top assistant, to the head coaching role.
While this is Steele’s first head coaching job, he has an impressive background as an assistant, with stops at Ohio State and Indiana before Sean Miller brought him to Xavier in 2008, and he’s been there ever since. To promote from within and have roster comfort and continuity could be something that pays off for the Musketeers.
Also, at 36 years old, Steele is the youngest head coach in the Big East and one of the youngest in college basketball.
2017-18 Season At A Glance
29-6; 15-3 Big East; 1st in standings; 15th on KenPom
Departures (2017-18 stats)
- Trevon Bluiett (19.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, First Team All-Big East)
- JP Macura (12.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG)
- Kerem Kanter (10.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG)
- Kaiser Gates (7.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG)
- Sean O’Mara (6.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
Returnees (2017-18 stats)
- Quentin Goodin (8.7 PPG, 4.9 APG)
- Naji Marshall (7.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
- Tyrique Jones (7.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG)
- Paul Scruggs (4.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
- Elias Harden (0.7 PPG, 0.2 RPG)
Newcomers (2017-18 stats)
- Ryan Welage (18.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG at San Jose State)
- Zach Hankins (15.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG at Ferris State. 2017-18 D-II Player of the Year)
- Kyle Castlin (10.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG at Columbia)
What Happened Last Year
Coming off the third Elite Eight appearance in school history and returning the majority of that squad, the Musketeers had high hopes going into last season. After rolling through nonconference play at 12-1, Xavier won its first three Big East games before dropping back to back contests to Villanova and Providence. The Musketeers got back on track after, though, winning nine straight games before falling to Villanova for a sweep.
That didn’t end up mattering, however, as the Musketeers went 15-3 in conference play compared to Nova’s 14-4 to give the Musketeers their first regular season Big East championship.
Despite falling in overtime to Providence their second Big East Tournament game, Xavier’s regular season performance was good enough to land them a the fourth #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
After handily beating 16-seed Texas Southern (imagine losing to a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament), the Musketeers looked poised to return to the second weekend. Unfortunately, Leonard Hamilton and the Florida State Seminoles had other ideas, as Xavier gave up a 12-point lead with nine minutes to go to lose the game and end their season.
Eleven days later, Mack accepted the Louisville job, starting a new chapter in Xavier history.
Key Non-Conference Matchups
- Wisconsin (November 13)
- Maui Invitational (November 19-21)
- @ Cincinnati (December 8)
- @ Missouri (December 18)
Reasons for Optimism
I get it. Losing Mack, Bluiett, Macura, and Kanter is bad. But it could have been worse! Keeping Steele, Goodin, and Jones is a great start going forward, and the Big East is going to, yet again, be a mess in the middle. It’s not crazy to think that this Xavier team could manage a .500 finish in the conference and a 19 to 20 win season overall.
Naji Marshall was unanimously named to the Big East All-Freshman Team last season after averaging 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game in his first year with the Musketeers. He started 16 of Xavier’s 17 final games and averaged 21 minutes, which should go up this year. As a result, his scoring and rebounding should go up.
Additionally, Paul Scruggs was absolutely excellent on defense in conference play. If his offensive game catches up, which there’s no reason to believe it won’t, the Musketeers could ease the pain of the loss of Bluiett and Macura that much easier.
Strong Non-Conference Schedule
As you can see above, the Musketeers have a strong non-conference schedule, as they generally do. There are a lot of chances for good wins between Wisconsin, Maui, Cincinnati, and Missouri. The Musketeers will also see a ton of teams with depth and experience in those games, which will give them a chance to get their rotation down before Big East play hits.
Reasons for Pessimism
Everything Adds Up
Remember right up there when I said it might be fine that Bluiett, Macura, Kanter, and Gates are gone? It might.
It also might not! Those four players accounted for 50 points per game last season, which is a ton of scoring. While it seems like guys like Marshall, Scruggs, Jones, Welage, and Goodin can make up some of the loss, it’s a tough hill to climb to get all 43 points back.
Those four also accounted for 19 rebounds per game, by the way.
Since conference realignment, first year head coaches in the Big East have averaged 14 wins in their debut season. Chris Holtmann and LaVall Jordan both won 20+ games in their first seasons at Butler, but Steve Wojciechowski, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Dave Leitao didn’t fare quite as well.
How will Travis Steele’s first year turn out? It remains to be seen. There’s a stark difference in being a top assistant coach and a head coach.
Best Case Scenario
Steele’s transition to head coach is seamless and Goodin takes the next step in becoming an elite scorer as the Musketeers pick up big wins in a strong nonconference schedule to enter Big East play with double-digit wins. From there, they put together a .500 season in conference play to finish in the top half of the Big East with an NCAA Tournament berth on the horizon.
Worst Case Scenario
Things don’t go according to plan as the team is unable to recover from the multiple departures and falter in their big nonconference games to enter Big East play at 7-5, then continue to struggle in conference play, going 7-11 and completing a disappointing 14-16 regular season, playing on Wednesday night in the Big East Tournament, and losing to DePaul as the 7-seed to end their year at 14-17.
20-11, 9-9 in Big East play, NCAA Tournament berth