By John Fanta
What chili is to Cincinnati, Xavier Basketball is to college basketball’s dance floor.
The Musketeers have reached 16 of the last 18 NCAA Tournaments, with seven of those trips featuring a Sweet 16 run as well. Consistency is more than established in Cincinnati. It’s why Xavier was the perfect addition to the reformed BIG EAST in 2013. The Musketeers have represented the conference in the last five NCAA Tournaments. Besides Villanova, they have advanced the furthest with an improbable Elite Eight run in 2017 as an 11-seed.
As they begin the Travis Steele Era, there are questions to answer for the Musketeers. Gone are All-BIG EAST selections Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. But, in the midst of those questions, there is the idea that the program has reloaded time and again in the last two decades. There is the idea that the lineage of coaches at the helm speaks for itself — Pete Gillen, Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller, Chris Mack. And all signs point to Steele continuing the program’s tradition of making noise in March.
“It’s the elephant in the room, going to where Xavier has never gone before (a Final Four),” said Steele in his opening press conference. That is the future goal for Steele. While this retooled 2018-19 roster does not say Final Four on paper, here are some of the key factors for the Musketeers to appear in a sixth straight dance.
Defense: Steele’s expectations are as high as possible for the way his team will defend. Expect the Musketeers to be a physical, grind-it-out unit in 2018-19. That certainly is a shift from last year, when the Musketeers were third-worst in the BIG EAST in scoring defense at 74.7 points per game. It was all about offense with Bluiett and Macura leading the way, as Xavier was eighth in the nation averaging 84.4 points per contest.
Quentin Goodin: The junior point guard sang Steele’s praises once the hire was made official and is pumped to play for him. Now, it’s Goodin who will be looked at as the calming presence on the roster due to his level of experience. “Q” will stir the drink for Xavier after placing third in the BIG EAST with 4.9 assists per game this past year. Expect his 8.7 points per game from last year to rise into double-figures, but it’s that ability to initiate Xavier’s offense that will be so integral to the Musketeers’ success.
Sophomore Duo: Walking into a Xavier preseason practice last year, one player stood out immediately. It wasn’t Bluiett or Macura or Sean O’Mara or even Kerem Kanter. It was a freshman. Naji Marshall has “match-up nightmare” written all over him, and while we only saw flashes of his skillset last year, I expect him to take off in year two. The 6-foot-7 combo forward averaged 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game this past season. Along with him, guard Paul Scruggs will most definitely increase on his 4.9/2.0/1.7 line from last season. This duo’s increased production may offer the biggest measuring stick for what Xavier does offensively in 2018-19. It’s really a microcosm of the BIG EAST as well – players who have shown potential but will need to take more of a front seat role. Just how much these two Musketeer sophomores do that will be a major determining factor for Xavier.
Grad Transfer Trio: Steele has reeled in experience to complement the rising youth at Xavier as well, adding Columbia’s Kyle Castlin, Ferris State’s Zach Hankins and San Jose State’s Ryan Welage. Castlin, a 6-foot-4 guard, averaged 10.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game for the Lions this past season. Hankins and Welage will look to add size down low for a rebuilding frontcourt.
X-Factor? Tyrique Jones: Can the 6-foot-9, 240-pound big man turn the corner? If he does, that rebuilding frontcourt will have a stable piece down low. Jones shined on Xavier’s 2017 Elite Eight run. Averaging 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds last year, the Musketeers will look for him to be in double-double territory. This kid has a high ceiling. Now, it’s about producing results as Jones enters his junior campaign.
An absolutely loaded Maui Invitational field highlights Xavier’s non-conference slate for the upcoming season. The Musketeers will open play with a consensus preseason Top 15-20 team in Auburn before facing either Duke or San Diego State. Arizona, Gonzaga, Iowa State and Illinois are on the other side of the field.
Before Xavier heads to the Maui, they’ll host Wisconsin in another Gavitt Games showdown with the Badgers. Greg Gard’s team will be powered by redshirt senior Ethan Happ, who returns for a final year in Madison. That game will serve as a strong gauge for the Musketeers.
Additionally, the annual Skyline Chili Shootout at Cincinnati will be on Dec. 8 at the newly renovated Fifth Third Arena.
Full Non-Con Slate:
Nov. 6 – IUPUI
Nov. 10 – Evansville
Nov. 13 – Wisconsin (Gavitt Games)
Nov. 19-21 – Maui Invitational
Nov. 28 – Miami (OH)
Dec. 1 – Oakland
Dec. 5 – Ohio
Dec. 8 – @ Cincinnati
Dec. 15 – Eastern Kentucky
Dec. 18 – @ Missouri
Dec. 21 – Detroit Mercy
Follow @John_Fanta and @NCAAHoopsDigest for full coverage of the Xavier and the BIG EAST.