The journey wasn’t always smooth, but Xavier’s 2014-15 season ended in a familiar place — the Sweet 16. The Musketeers, who lost to UTEP and Long Beach State in consecutive games in November and went .500 in Big East play, advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in the last eight seasons. Only nine schools can claim such a feat.
Making another deep March run is possible. Chris Mack must replace his starting point guard (Dee Davis) and top big man (Matt Stainbrook), but he welcomes back three of his top four scorers and adds several intriguing newcomers.
All Big East predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Jalen Reynolds made a big jump in his sophomore season, improving both his production (from 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game to 9.9 and 6.1, respectively) and his efficiency (from 53.3 percent shooting to 61.8). A 6'10" forward, Reynolds scored in double figures 17 times, including a career-high 21 in Xavier’s Round of 32 win over Georgia State. The challenge for Reynolds is to improve his defense, which in turn will allow him to stay on the floor longer with fewer fouls.
Senior James Farr doesn’t provide much offense, but he is one of the most effective rebounders in the Big East. He averaged 5.3 boards in only 15.6 minutes per game as a junior and had 13 rebounds against a physical frontline in the Musketeers’ win over Ole Miss in the NCAAs. Sean O’Mara played sparingly as a freshman but could be in position to play a key role up front. The 6'10", 247-pound sophomore is a true back-to-the-basket big man.
Makinde London, a 6'10" redshirt freshman, is one of the most exciting prospects on the roster. A top-100 recruit who played his senior year of high school at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, London is capable — in time — of being a difference-maker on both ends of the court. True freshman Kaiser Gates is a 6'8" small forward who has the versatility to guard four positions. He is a skilled offensive player who has a nice mid-range game.
Xavier Musketeers Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-14, 9-9 Big East
Postseason: Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
Big East Projection: 3
Postseason Projection: First round
Davis was a three-year starter at the point who ranked 14th nationally with 6.0 assists per game. He never developed into a scorer — he averaged a career-high 9.0 points as a senior — but provided leadership and ran the offense effectively.
His heir apparent, sophomore Larry Austin Jr., played more than five minutes in only four Big East games last season. He isn’t known for his outside shooting, but he can get to the rim with ease and has great vision.
Austin will be surrounded by veterans, including senior Remy Abell, junior Myles Davis and sophomore Trevon Bluiett. Abell averaged 8.4 points while shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range in his first season after transferring from Indiana. Davis improved dramatically in his second season in the program thanks in large part to a more aggressive offensive approach. As a freshman, 77.0 percent of his field goal attempts came from 3-point range; last year that number dropped to 59.2 percent. Bluiett was second on the team in scoring (11.0 ppg) as a freshman but slumped from the perimeter late in the season. He is a better shooter than his 32.6 percent mark from 3 would indicate.
Sophomore swingman J.P. Macura is another capable contributor. He never lacks in the hustle department; it’s his shot selection that’s questionable at times. Macura scored 17 points in only 13 minutes in the second game of his career and went on to score in double figures six more times during his freshman season.
The biggest wild card in the backcourt may be redshirt freshman Edmond Sumner. The 6'5" guard averaged 7.2 minutes in six games last season but was shut down because of chronic tendinitis in his knees. He could play significant minutes at the point if Austin struggles.
Key Losses: G Dee Davis, C Matt Stainbrook
Top Players: G Larry Austin Jr., G Myles Davis, G Remy Abell, G Trevone Bluiett, F Jalen Reynolds
Kaiser Gates is an athletic combo forward who excels in the open court but can also step out and hit from 3-point range. The staff opted to redshirt Makinde London last year to give him time to develop. He has the size, skill and athletic ability to be an all-conference player at some point in his career. Edmond Sumner took a medical redshirt after playing sparingly as a true freshman early last season.
Xavier has consistently shown the ability to replace key personnel without taking a step back. And that should be the case once again in ’15-16. There are some concerns — Who will take control of the point? Can the Musketeers replace Stainbrook’s production on the low block? — but Xavier has the talent to contend in the Big East and looks like a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team once again.