The biggest issue facing Xavier this season is managing expectations. After all, Xavier has won five straight A-10 regular-season titles and made the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the last 11 years with four trips to the Sweet 16 and two to the Elite Eight. Coach Chris Mack welcomes back three starters who earned all-conference honors — including A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway. And the Musketeers are adding young talent to their experienced and tested upperclassmen.
“There’s a tradition the guys are well aware of,” Mack says. “It actually fuels their motivation over the summer to live up to the expectations, especially as an older player. It’s a healthy pressure on our veterans.”
Key Musketeers Stat: 5
Xavier has won five consecutive A-10 regular-season titles. Ironically, the last year they won the A-10 Tournament (2006) was also the last year they didn't win the regular season.
Xavier has the ability to run multiple bigs with varying bodies and skills at opponents — a tremendous luxury. The frontcourt is held down by massive 7'0" senior Kenny Frease. The honorable mention All-A-10 selection was among the most improved players in the league last season, and Mack believes he can get even better.
“He has to be in great shape, more mobile and athletic and impact us around the basket,” Mack says. “He’s so big other teams won’t be able to handle him if he’s more mobile. He can be a tremendous offensive rebounder if he gets on the glass instead of laying on the other guy’s back when a shot goes up.”
Two 6'7" transfers are expected to make significant contributions. Travis Taylor, who spent his first two years at Monmouth, plays hard and can score around the basket or step out to medium range. Andre Walker is a post-graduate transfer from Vanderbilt who can do a little bit of everything. He isn’t a big scorer, but he handles the ball well and is a terrific passer.
Redshirt freshman Justin Martin, also 6'7", will challenge for playing time. Mack can also turn to a pair of 6'9" players. Jeff Robinson has been productive in spurts, and Griffin McKenzie can step out and shoot the three effectively.
The discussion obviously begins with Holloway, who’s thrived in the lead role. Holloway led the team last year in scoring (19.7 ppg) and the A-10 in assists (5.4 apg). He can fill a stat sheet; so what does Mack want Holloway to do in his senior year?
“He has to be more vocal and be more of a leader,” says the third-year head coach. “He’s always been a hard worker and gotten better each and every year, but I think it’s important to improve his teammates and raise their level of play and their work ethic.”
The conversation doesn’t end there. One of the few areas in which Xavier struggled last season was behind the 3-point line. They shot just .329 and scored only 22.5 percent of their points from beyond the arc (288th nationally). That’s why Mack is particularly excited about the return of Brad Redford, who was one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters as a freshman and sophomore but sat out last season due to a knee injury.
“I tell people all the time he’s the best shooter I’ve ever been around,” Mack says. “It’s uncanny because it’s difficult for him to get his shot off sometimes. But if he’s open, there isn’t another player I’d want shooting.”
The versatile and athletic Mark Lyons earned third-team All-A-10 honors as a sophomore and is the team’s second leading returning scorer and assist man. Dezmine Wells arrives as a 6'4" freshman with a college-ready body. Mack is cautiously optimistic. “We recruited him to be an impact player,” he says, “but there’s a difference in who you are on paper and who you are on the floor.”
Mack, who signed a new contract over the summer to remain at Xavier through the 2017-18 season, feels the excitement surrounding the program. He knows expectations are high, and he embraces the infectious nature of winning.
“We are very well aware that we have a talented group of returning players and newcomers,” says Mack. “We sense the excitement from our fans.”
But Mack also knows that excitement won’t win them one single game, that a sense of entitlement could sink his team’s high aspirations. He knows the clichés of hard work, chemistry and “the little things” are the keys for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“That’s what makes a great team,” he says. “Certainly we’re talented, and we recognize that, but we need to sacrifice some individual things to reach team goals that we set out.”
A-10 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16