Musketeers will rely on tough defense to carry them back to NCAAs
Chris Mack left for Louisville after nine seasons at his alma mater, and his top assistant, Travis Steele, will slide over and assume control of a team that lost a ton of production. Leading scorer Trevon Bluiett and two other seniors — J.P. Macura and Kerem Kanter — who averaged double figures a year ago are gone. In addition, Kaiser Gates, who could have been Xavier’s top scorer this season, decided to turn pro and went undrafted.
There’s certainly still enough in the cupboard for the Musketeers to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but this will be a different Xavier team than has taken the floor the last few years. Its identity will likely come on the defensive end, and this group could struggle to score without Bluiett and Macura — a pair of program fixtures the last four years.
Steele has already proved that he can recruit. Now comes his chance to show he can coach.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Travis Steele
2017-18 RECORD (BIG EAST): 29-6 (15-3)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Florida State 75-70 in the second round
G Trevon Bluiett (19.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.5 apg)
F Kaiser Gates (7.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
F Kerem Kanter (10.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
G J.P. Macura (12.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.9 apg)
C Sean O’Mara (6.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Steele will have to replace Kanter, Gates and veteran big man Sean O’Mara — which is no easy task.
Sophomore Naji Marshall will play multiple positions but will see the majority of his time at the forward spots. The 6'7" Marshall averaged 7.7 points and 4.4 boards in 21.8 minutes last season as a freshman, and the hope is that he can significantly increase his scoring production. He is a tough, athletic player who can defend and also finds a way to score.
Junior Tyrique Jones was productive in limited time last season, putting up 7.0 points and 4.5 boards in 15.0 minutes. He can be a consistent double-double performer if he can stay out of foul trouble enough to log major minutes. Jones also brings toughness to the table, and Steele refers to him as the “heart and soul of the team.”
Zach Hankins, one of three grad transfers joining the team, is a 6'11" forward who starred at Division II Ferris State in Michigan. He is mobile, long, athletic, runs the court and can also defend and block shots. Steele is optimistic that Hankins will play a significant role. Ryan Welage, another grad transfer, averaged 18.1 points last season for a downtrodden San Jose State team and will give the Musketeers a skilled face-up forward who can make 3s and stretch the defense.
Freshman Dontarius James, who can shoot the ball from 3, will get backup minutes at the 4 and 5.
Quentin Goodin is the team’s only returning starter, and the hope is that he can consistently score in double figures and also rank near the top of the Big East in assists. Goodin will be joined in the backcourt by jack-of-all trades sophomore Paul Scruggs, who has a Marcus Smart-type of game thanks to his ability to guard multiple positions, his toughness — and the inconsistency of his perimeter shot.
Kyle Castlin, the third grad transfer, averaged 10.5 points per game during an injury-shortened junior season at Columbia. The Georgia native impressed Steele with his work ethic and leadership over the summer.
Freshman Keonte Kennedy, a 6'5" wing, will be used off the bench as a guy who can come in and make shots from the perimeter.
There are plenty of questions with this team — depth, scoring ability and even coaching. However, Xavier has an outstanding track record when it promotes from within, dating back to Sean Miller replacing Thad Matta in 2004 and Mack replacing Miller in 2009.
The key will be whether Goodin can develop into a high-end point guard and whether Marshall, Jones and Scruggs can give Steele enough in the scoring department.
If not, Xavier will have to rely on its defense this season to remain nationally relevant.
Postseason Prediction: One & Done
Big East Prediction: 3rd