Key Returners: Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Quentin Goodin, Kaiser Gates, Sean O'Mara
Key Losses: Edmond Sumner, Malcolm Bernard
Key Newcomers: Paul Scruggs, Kerem Kanter (Green Bay grad transfer), Naji Marshall, Elias Harden, Jared Ridder
Postseason Projection: 3 - 4 seed
Outlook: No matter what type of curve ball or blind side hook is thrown at Chris Mack, he and his Musketeers just simply refuse to flinch. Despite losing a budding star in Edmond Sumner to a season ending knee-injury last year, along with Myles Davis to an indefinite suspension (which led to his eventual departure from the program), Xavier still gutted their way to yet another NCAA tournament appearance. But the absence of those two critical backcourt pieces was magnified during a poorly timed 6-game losing streak in February, which almost cost the X-Men a shot at an at-large berth. And after the committee slotted Xavier on the 11-seed line, expectations of a deep postseason run had all but vanished from the minds of most Musketeer fans. But after an improbable 3-game stretch, capped off by an oh-so-sweet victory over former head coach Sean Miller and the 2nd-seeded Arizona Wildcats, Xavier was one game away from its first ever Final Four appearance.
Unfortunately, the Musketeers met their match against the white-hot Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Elite 8 as the Zags put the final dagger in Xavier's season with a continuous barrage of 3s. It was only fitting that Mack’s name was then thrown into every rumor mill for big school coaching vacancies this summer, including the state’s premier brand, Ohio State. He ultimately chose to return to his alma mater, where a roster that's stacked with both talent and experience awaits him this year.
Losing Edmond Sumner to the NBA draft a was a bad start to Xavier’s offseason, but the news of Big East first-teamer Trevon Bluiett opting to forego the draft and return to school was an enormous sigh of relief for the Musketeer faithful. While Sumner and Myles Davis were both MIA for large chunks of the 2016-17 campaign, Bluiett refused to skip a beat as he continued his maturation into the unquestioned alpha of the X-Men offense - just ask Cincinnati fans, who got to witness his 40-point explosion at Fifth Third Arena in last year’s Crosstown Shootout. Bluiett has been a model of efficiency since the day he first put on a Xavier uniform back in 2014. As the roster has changed year-to-year, Bluiett has shown an uncanny ability to adapt and tailor his game to fill specific team needs in that particular season.
As a sophomore in 2015-16, he assumed more of a facilitator role playing alongside Dee Davis, who was more of a "game manager" at the point guard position - refer to his 2016 ARate and TORate below (particuarly in conference). Last year, Bluiett shifted his focus to shoring up the defensive boards to help fill the rebounding void left behind by James Farr and Jalen Reynolds - refer to his 2017 defensive rebounding rate (DR%) below.
Bluiett's track record of consistency and durability implies his production this year is as certain as death and taxes. All he needs is someone to consistently get him the ball on the wing, which will now be Quentin Goodin's primary responsibility. Goodin is primed to make the quintessential sophomore leap this year with Sumner no longer in the picture, as he officially assumes the wheel as the full-time point guard.
Similar to his predecessor Sumner, Goodin possesses elite size for a college point guard at 6’4, 194 pounds and has already shown flashes of a ceiling-less upside in his first full season. However, Goodin's ball security, finishing ability at the rim and outside shooting consistency all resembled the typical ebbs and flows of freshman growing pains. While he's already proven to be a competent and committed defender, Goodin's development as both a leader and efficient offensive playmaker will allow everything else to fall in place for this year's Xavier squad. The good news is that he'll get handed the keys to a finely-tuned sports car, which comes fully loaded with a plethora of offensive weapons to work with.
The first of these options is a multitalented hybrid guard/wing in senior JP Macura. In Davis's absence last year, Macura ascended from an overqualified role player or "glue guy", into one of the most versatile two-way players in the entire Big East. Don't let the smoothly-shaven babyface or outrageous bar escapades fool you - his relentless energy and intensity on both ends of the floor embody the toughness of a prototypical Xavier team, which has been institutionalized since Mack took the helm in 2009. While Macura was initially pegged as a spot-up shooter early in his career, improved strength and confidence has transformed him into a complete offensive player. Perhaps the most under-appreciated component of Macura's well-rounded game is his mastery of Mack’s 1-3-1 zone defense. His length and anticipation routinely disrupts ball handlers and cross court passes alike, as evidenced by his team leading steal rate last season.
Stylistically, the scouting report on recent Xavier teams - much of which is a byproduct of Bluiett's versatility - has been geared toward stopping a 4-out, 1-in offensive attack. Last year, the size of Goodin, Bluiett and Macura on the perimeter gave Mack the flexibility to play either Malcolm Bernard (6'6) or Kaiser Gates (6'8) at the 4 without sacrificing a ton of rebounding production - in fact, Bluiett and Gates were Xavier's best defensive rebounders last season (not named Rashid Gaston) on a per possession basis. And while Gates' 34% 3-point shooting clip is mediocre at best, just his presence on the floor as a long range shooting threat opened up more driving lanes for the rangy guards to penetrate and initiate offense. So with Sean O'Mara, Tyrique Jones and grad transfer addition Kerem Kanter (younger brother of Enes Kanter) as viable options to fortify the paint - along with an assortment of skill sets arriving in the Big East’s 2nd-best recruiting class - Mack will have an endless number of lineup combinations which he can use to counter any opposing matchup.
If the X-Men want to exploit an undersized front court, they can pound it inside to O'Mara, who is a skilled post player and consistent finisher down low. When facing Villanova’s patented 4-out, 1-in attack, Mack can fight "fire with fire" using Goodin, Macura, Bluiett and one of many options at the 3 or 4 spot, given Bluiett can check either position. Mack has three capable outside shooters in the aforementioned Gates, Jarred Ritter (6'7) and Elias Harden (6’6), as well as a position-less athlete in Naji Marshall who can guard multiple player types. I haven’t even mentioned the top rated prospect of this highly regarded freshman group, Paul Scruggs, who will certainly spell Goodin, Macura and Bluiett with his ability to play all three guard positions. He also gives Mack an alternative solution at the lead guard spot if Goodin fails to shake his inefficient freshman tendencies.
Bottom Line: There’s a laundry list of talented assets up and down this year's X-Men roster and no one is better than Mack at pushing the right buttons and pulling the right levers. So while Villanova will once again be the favorites to reign supreme in the Big East, expect the Musketeers to be right on their tail all season long, which should put them in position to wind up on the 3 or 4-seed line when March rolls around.