Matt Stainbrook leads young Musketeers in second season in Big East
Few believed Xavier would finish in the top half of the retooled Big East based on last year’s preseason predictions. But the Musketeers, picked seventh by the league’s media in the fall, went on to tie for third with a 10–8 conference record, including a 7–2 mark at home.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for a Xavier team that floundered down the stretch and fell to NC State in an NCAA Tournament “play-in game” in nearby Dayton. XU dropped nine of its final 15 games and suffered a major setback when center Matt Stainbrook strained the MCL in his left knee in the last regular-season road game. Although Stainbrook returned for the postseason, he was not at full strength.
Fast forward to this season’s new-look team, which features nine scholarship freshmen and sophomores. High expectations abound for the six rookies — Larry Austin Jr., Trevon Bluiett, Makinde London, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Edmond Sumner — that form the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history.
There’s much to learn about this team, starting with the identities of new scoring leaders. Last year’s top producers are gone — Semaj Christon was a second-round pick in the NBA Draft after leaving Xavier following his sophomore season, and Justin Martin opted to play his final season at SMU as a graduate transfer.
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Stainbrook was a known quantity — despite being in his first season at Xavier after transferring from Western Michigan — for his scoring, rebounding and passing skills. His work down low allowed Jalen Reynolds time to develop as a freshman. The 6-9 forward made modest contributions for much of the season but showed his vast potential with a 17-point, 16-rebound effort in a win at St. John’s in February. Reynolds, one of the team’s best athletes, is explosive around the basket.
James Farr, also 6-9, traveled a different trajectory by starting the season strong and fading in February. Farr, who can stretch defenses with his long-range shooting, has the potential to be a difference-maker if he develops more consistency on the defensive end of the floor. London and O’Mara also may impact the front line as they compete for minutes off the bench.
The departure of Martin, who played small forward and also served as a stretch-4, opens the door for Bluiett, a heralded prospect. The 6-6 wing, who averaged 35.7 points as a high school senior, is perhaps the most college-ready player among the newcomers. Macura is another capable shooter who could make an impact, either at small forward or shooting guard.
Xavier Musketeers Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-13, 10-8 Big East
Postseason: NCAA First Four
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Coach: Chris Mack (111-57 at Xavier, 58-24 A-10/Big East)
Big East Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA First Four
Point guard Dee Davis is the elder statesman of the team by virtue of being the only fourth-year Musketeer on the roster. He developed into an effective pass-first guard as a junior while still contributing 7.7 points to go with his 4.7 assists. As a senior, Davis will be asked to increase his production while providing leadership to an otherwise young backcourt.
Xavier gains experience in junior guard Remy Abell, a transfer from Indiana who shot 48.5 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore at IU two years ago. He is capable of being a factor on both ends of the court.
At times last season Myles Davis was among the first players off the bench, capable of draining clutch 3-pointers and changing momentum. The shooting guard struggled down the stretch, both offensively and defensively, and vowed to improve in the offseason. If he has, the New Jersey native will be a key cog in Xavier’s rotation.
Sophomore Brandon Randolph and Sumner, one of the freshmen, will battle for time off the bench at the point. Randolph played significant minutes early last season but fell out of the rotation in the final two months.
Chris Mack has the youngest roster in his six-year tenure, but he still has plenty of talent at his disposal — despite losing his top two scorers, each with eligibility remaining.
If the Musketeers can cure some of the ills that afflicted them last season — inconsistent bench production, stretches of poor defense — they will be in the mix at the top of the Big East standings. Catching the rookies up to speed and rolling with their early mistakes will be key.
Remy Abell, a transfer from Indiana, practiced with Xavier last season and should play major minutes. Trevon Bluiett arrives with an impressive offensive resume, but like the other freshmen — Larry Austin Jr., Makinde London, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Edmond Sumner — he must prove he can play defense.