Xavier has reached the Sweet 16 in six of the last 10 seasons. It recorded three upsets in last March’s NCAA Tournament to reach the first Elite Eight of coach Chris Mack’s tenure. It returns four NCAA Tournament starters, including a potential All-American, Trevon Bluiett, who easily could be earning a paycheck from a professional team at the moment.
So, naturally, Mack hopes that a deep, experienced 2017-18 squad will remember — and learn from — lows like a six-game losing streak that preceded the postseason spurt. “My hope is that guys understand how fleeting success can be,” the ninth-year coach says. “Simply because we’re the same group that couldn’t get out of our own way for a few weeks. There’s a willingness to work and an understanding that nothing’s been given to us. Everything will be earned.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Chris Mack
2016-17 RECORD (BIG EAST): 24–14 (9–9)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Gonzaga 83–59 in the Elite Eight
G Malcolm Bernard (6.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
F RaShid Gaston (7.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
G Edmond Sumner (15.0 ppg, 5.0 apg)
The Musketeers’ big men are knowns who remain a bit unknown. Sean O’Mara recorded only seven double-digit scoring efforts in the 2016-17 regular season before becoming the team’s third-leading scorer (10.5 ppg) during the NCAA Tournament. It can’t be a fluke. O’Mara doesn’t need to be a double-double force, but he must be consistent while the young bigs grow.
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One of them, 6'9" sophomore Tyrique Jones, typically logged single-digit minutes off the bench before starting all four NCAA Tournament games last March. An 8-for-8 shooting night against Creighton last February hinted at Jones’ capacity to be an efficient finisher at the rim if defenses direct their attention elsewhere.
Grad transfer Kerem Kanter (11.3 ppg for Green Bay last year) creates instant flexibility; the 6'10" forward’s comfort operating as a shooter or passer from 15 feet and beyond permits Mack to deploy traditional two-big lineups or use Kanter alone to invert and stretch out the opposition.
There isn’t much more to ask from Bluiett, the 6'6" swingman who averaged 18.5 points and 5.7 rebounds and earned first-team All-Big East honors last year, or J.P. Macura, the 6'5" senior who notched 14.4 points in his first season as a full-time starter. But Mack has requests anyway. Bluiett can be a next-level scorer if he improves on his 5.5 free throw attempts per game — he was a 75.4 percent shooter there last year. More important, Macura must translate willingness to take big shots into consistent 3-point accuracy; Xavier could be confounding to defend if Macura improves on 34.0 percent efficiency from long range.
Quentin Goodin performed admirably after point guard Edmond Sumner was lost to an ACL tear, and the 6'4" sophomore’s broad shoulders and strength make him an ideal penetrate-and-create player. But after shooting 35.0 percent, Goodin must rediscover the consistency at the rim that impressed Xavier coaches during recruiting. “I thought that was the best thing he did coming into our program,” Mack says.
Everyone benefits from a pair of newcomers who alleviate the playmaking pressure. Paul Scruggs, a 6'3" guard, and Naji Marshall, a 6'6" swingman, are consensus top-60 recruits with toughness and a knack for getting into the lane. Their presence eliminates complacency and creates enviable depth.
Xavier boasts a compelling combination of been-there experience and energy from newcomers or returnees in new roles. Bluiett is a star. Plentiful options up front permit Mack to go with a hot hand. Esteemed freshmen can challenge for big minutes. All that creates a vibe suggesting that the Musketeers are more likely to repeat their feats than rest on them.