Being a first-year head coach, especially in college basketball, is very much a roller coaster. Chances are your newness as a head coach is also tied to your general inexperience as one, and, quite possibly, your age. But regardless of where you stand in either area, some coaches have thrived in those situations, and it’s an occurrence which has encouraged several programs to take a chance on those facing similar circumstances.
Travis Steele is a prime example of this, because he received his first head coaching job a year and a half ago. After coaching at the collegiate level for 17 years, including stints at Ohio State, Indiana, and eventually Xavier, the latter chose to promote Steele to head coach following Chris Mack’s departure to Louisville. Not only was Steele a first-time head coach, but he was just 36 years old.
Even with the various departures and expectations from former coach Chris Mack’s last season at Xavier, Steele did more than enough to maintain the excitement that surrounds this program.
2018-19 Record: 19-16
2018-19 Big East Finish: Finished fourth (9-9) after tiebreakers ended their tie in third place.
2019-20 KenPom Ranking: 18th. Last season, they finished at 66th.
Postseason History: Was the third seed in the NIT and lost to Texas in the second round.
In any other season/situation, a coach in Steele’s position would endure a lot of losing before possibly bouncing back. The Musketeers lost a lot of scoring with the departures of Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, and Kerem Kanter. The Big East is a very competitive conference because not only the top teams - who year in and year out - stay at the top, but anyone can emerge as a viable contender. The Musketeers had experienced such success, because they finished inside the top two of the Big East, twice in the last five years.
Even with their struggles last season, since the Musketeers were hovering around or below the .500 mark, but it was their late season run which serves as the foundation of their excitement right now. In their final nine games, the Big East competitor went 7-2 and defeated the likes of Villanova, Seton Hall, and Creighton before eventually bowing out in the NIT.
This year’s Musketeers will undergo their share of roster turnover, but it’s not the same as before. While the trio of Zach Hankins, Kyle Castlin, and Ryan Welage certainly contributed on the court, their departures could be maintained and likely improved upon. Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, and Tyrique Jones are back to lead the way, as the three highest scorers on this team (14 PPG, 12 PPG, and 11 PPG last season, respectively). When speaking of Jones, we have to note his ability to rebound at a high clip via his 7.6 rebounds per game average, which was fourth in the Big East last season.
But when it’s all said and done, the Musketeers’ depth can make them a very viable contender this season. They landed two productive grad transfers in 6-foot-8 Jason Carter (Averaged 16 & 6 at Ohio) and 6-foot-2 Bryce Moore (Averaged 9 PPG at Western Michigan), while also getting what’s considered to be the second-best recruiting class in their entire conference. And in case you forgot, senior guard Quentin Goodin has the potential to lead the Musketeers and the Big East in assists and assist to turnover ratio.
So, what does this mean for Coach Steele and his Musketeers? They have the talent and experience to build upon last season and now it’s just a matter of making it happen. Last season’s late finish at 7-2 has to be confirmed as legitimate instead of fraudulent, and the best way to do so is by avoiding another slow start. This team can’t begin conference play on December 30th against Villanova in that same fashion.
The surefire way for the Musketeers to make the NCAA Tournament is by starting off fast and obtaining a couple of big wins along the way.