*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered â€“ the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. After we broke down No. 16 Arizona earlier today, we’ll keep this going with No. 15-ranked Xavier (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
Over the course of the past decade, the Xavier Musketeers have proven to be one of the premier mid-major programs in the NCAA, on par with the likes of Butler, Gonzaga and VCU. In the 10 seasons since 2001, the X-Men have made the NCAA Tournament in every season but one, winning the Atlantic 10 regular season seven times and making it to the NCAA Elite Eight in ’04 and ’08. The strong trend continued last year as the Musketeers finished the season No. 20 in the AP Polls, going 24-8 overall (15-1 in the A-10), before fizzling out in the Round of 64 with a loss to Marquette. As head coach Chris Mack enters his third season at the helm, Xavier looks primed for yet another strong season, returning three starters and adding some much needed depth to a proven roster.
This year’s squad will go as far as the backcourt can take them. Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons are the unquestioned leaders of the ballclub, a senior and junior (respectively) that have accrued impressive rÃ©sumÃ©s during their years at XU. Holloway, the team’s 6-0 leading scorer and passer last season (19.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.4 apg) finished the year as an AP Third Team All-American selection, A-10 Player of the Year and member of the conference’s All-Defensive Team. Lyons racked up a Third Team All-Atlantic 10 Conference honor on his way to 13.6 points and 3.1 assists per contest. Senior Kenny Frease, a 7-foot center, brings potential for a strong inside presence (11.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg last year) and enforcer mentality to help balance the team’s strength on the outside. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that Frease has been relatively underwhelming in his first three years with the program, his colossal frame looking more imposing on the depth chart and during pregame warm-ups than after the game clock starts rolling. The big man needs to ratchet things up if Xavier wants to make another deep tournament run with this group.
The biggest difference for the ’11-’12 season will be a deeper bench and a stable rotation. After sticking to a six or seven-man lineup for the majority of last year, the toll of the season was evident down the stretch. The team’s pace slowed and players began to wear down, and the team had an early bounce from the NCAA Tourney. Transfer Travis Taylor and freshly eligible Justin Martin should be good to go after a full season of practicing with the team last year, while current grad student and former Vanderbilt Commodore Andre Walker could be a key swingman in his final season of collegiate eligibility. Freshmen Dee Davis and Dezmine Wells (coming off a dunk contest win at Musketeer Madness) could also add some nice spot minutes in their first seasons. And while the smaller veteran guards of Holloway and Lyons will be counted on to provide scoring and leadership, Xavier will have a plethora of height with Frease, Taylor, Walker, sophomore Griffin McKenzie and junior Jeff Robinson all checking in no shorter than 6-8. If the squad can stay healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chris Mack employing a double-digit rotation deep into conference play.
The preseason hasn’t been without controversy for the Musketeers. Holloway was recently suspended by the NCAA for the team’s regular season opener against Morgan State. He will be forced to sit out the game as a result of a secondary rules violation, believed to be a result of playing in two different summer leagues when regulations only allow one. No further punishment is expected, and I doubt the team will have much trouble overcoming the void with Morgan State in town. But it’s not the way you want your star player to begin the season. Frease has also had issues recently, serving a nine-day suspension handed down by Mack. The sentence was levied for what Mack described as a failure to fulfill team responsibilities, and Frease wasn’t reinstated until after the squad’s Musketeer Madness tip-off event. There’s always the possibility that the penalty could light a fire under Kenny, but I’m betting the fans and players alike are more concerned at the moment with whether or not the early stumbles will serve as a precursor to how the year plays out.
The Muskies A-10 slate will be anything but easy – having to go against the likes of Temple, Dayton, UMass, and Richmond – but the early non-conference schedule will give a quick insight into what exactly this group is made of. They kick off a five-game stretch in late November that features road games against Vanderbilt and Butler, while playing host to Georgia, Purdue and then Cincinnati in the annual Crosstown Shootout. After traveling to the Hawaii Airlines Diamond Head Classic over the Christmas holiday, they come back home to face Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve. I would assume anything less than 4-2 in those six standalone contests would be a major disappointment for the X-Men.
Under the Radar
Three-point specialist Brad Redford is recovering from a left knee injury, and might not be 100 percent to start the year. Travis Taylor is being touted as an athletic freak with a raw offensive game. It will be interesting to see what the Monmouth transfer can offer after sitting out last season.
Word is that 6-1 Mark Lyons slammed one home after jumping over 6-8 Isaiah Philmore during the Musketeer Madness dunk contest. The event also served as an unveiling of the squad’s new Nike uniforms, with a design based on the old Cincinnati Royals jerseys. My first impression: sick.
With such a strong backcourt, will these guys sneak up on anyone this year?
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