Below 'X'-Pectations: Is Xavier Underachieving?

-Matt Cox

Lets be clear before proceeding any further... It's highly likely that in two months, with the benefit of hindsight, this article will have morphed into a laughable overreaction to what was simply a somewhat pedestrian start to Xavier's 2016-17 campaign - at least, relative to the lofty preseason expectations.  However, as it stands today, here are the cold hard facts about the Musketeers' body of work as of January 24, 2017: 

  • Record: 14-5 overall; 4-3 in Big East
  • Best Wins: Clemson (neutral), Georgetown (home & away), Utah (home), Wake Forest (home)
  • Bad Losses: None

There's certainly nothing to snuff at about the X's resume at this juncture - but it sure isn't anything to write home about either... If the season ended today, Xavier would have only one win against an NCAA tournament team (Clemson), assuming Utah and Wake Forest fell on the wrong side of the bubble.  And while two of the X-Men's last three losses are completely excusable (at Villanova and at Butler), their most recent defeat came at the hands of an undermanned Creighton team, who played the bulk of that game without their stud point guard Mo Watson.

One could argue that up until this point in the season, the Musketeers have merely "met expectations".  In other words, they've protected their home court and they've taken care of business against both middle-tier and inferior competition.  However, when the X-Men have been tested against bonafide top-25 caliber opponents, they've shown minimal evidence that they belong in the conversation with the nation's elite squads - something they proved worthy of last season (see wins vs. Villanova, Seton Hall & Cincinnati).   For us here at 3MW, who unanimously predicted this team to march to the Sweet 16 and beyond, the fact that we are halfway through the year and have yet to see any real upside from this team is mildly troublesome.  

The question then becomes, what exactly has held the X back from making the leap we all thought they would???

Lets begin the diagnosis by comparing this year to last year's team - that is, the same team that was only a Bronson Koenig fadeaway buzzer beater away from advancing to the Elite 8 (sorry Xavier fans, but I had to credentialize how legit that squad was)...

Before diving into the advanced metrics, lets first recall where exactly the roster turnover occurred this offseason for the X-Men.  For the exception of ex-Indiana transfer Remy Abell, the core members of last year's backcourt - Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura and Myles Davis* - all returned to school after playing major major minutes last year.  However, the frontcourt underwent a complete overhaul thanks to James Farr's untimely graduation and Jalen Reynolds' unwise decision to prematurely declare for the NBA draft.

*Davis was indefinitely suspended and did not play the first 15 games of the season

But even without their two glass cleaning specialists, the X-Men have actually been more dominant on the boards this season (see 'Off. Reb. %' row under 'Defense' column above).  Their stellar rebounding production is somewhat inexplicable, given Chris Mack has relied upon a relatively unproven frontline unit this season, which features MEAC transfer Rashid Gaston (albeit he was productive at Norfolk St.), sophomore Kaiser Gates and junior Sean O'Mara, who rode his fair share of the pine over the last two seasons.  The point here is that this patchwork collection of bigs has provided exactly what the deadly duo of Farr/Reynolds brought to the table last year, despite lacking the premier talent and recruiting pedigree as their predecessors...

So here comes the brutal truth:  If you're a cynical Xavier basketball fan and are looking to assign blame somewhere, the finger pointing should actually be directed at the those aforementioned guards.  And just to clarify - it's not that this trio has been bad this season.  It's thats they just haven't gotten any better... 

Here's a snapshot that reveals just how efficient this perimeter group has been over the past two seasons:

One thing to remember is that Sumner, Bluiett and Macura are each assuming eerily similar positions in the offense as they did a year ago.  Put another way, no one is being asked to take on an unfair or unreasonable share of the scoring or playmaking responsibilities.  But despite being slotted into comfortable and familiar offensive roles, the improvement needed from this talented guard trio appears to be stuck in quicksand.

When looking at the advanced numbers on both a team basis and player-by-player basis, its rather obvious what has hurt X's offensive consistency this season: 3-point shooting.  Not only have the Musketeers gone ice cold from behind the arc, but they've compounded their issues by also attempting more 3s than they did a year ago.  This poor combination of converting a lower percentage at a higher volume is putting a ton of pressure on the frontcourt to routinely chase down long range misses and generate offense from 2nd chance opportunities.  Even though this new look interior ensemble has answered the bell so far, a murderous Big East schedule lies ahead, which raises some concerns about the sustainability of this teams' offensive efficiency going forward...

The bottom line is that someone is going to need to step up and provide some consistent outside shooting if this team has any chance of reaching the offensive ceiling from last year.  An over-reliance on the controlling the offensive glass can be mitigated by bigger, more athletic frontlines and trying to make a living scoring from the free throw line can also backfire, especially on the road where the whistle may not be as friendly.  

Up until last week, the one ray of hope for the X-Men to miraculously solve their outside shooting conundrum was the pending return of Myles Davis - that was, until he announced that he was leaving the team for good.  And while Malcolm Bernard (previously of Florida A&M and Charleston Southern) has been a reliable newcomer as a defender and spot-up shooter, he still lacks the dynamic offensive game that Davis brought to the table.  

So given the core roster will effectively be the same in March as it was all the way back in November, what is the true destiny of this Xavier team?

Is it possible a lightbulb suddenly turns on inside Edmond Sumner's head, causing him to ascend to a superstar level? (maybe)  

Is there a chance Trevon Bluiett rekindles the shooting stroke that rained in 40% from downtown last year? (potentially)

Could Tu Holloway or Mark 'Mooga' Lyons or Jordan Crawford take a leave of absence from their professional playing careers and come back for a final semester of eligibility? (unlikely)

Regardless of whatever scenario Musketeer fans choose to put their stock in, the more the season goes on, the more it appears this team "is NOT who we thought they were".  That is, a top-25 team with a Sweet 16 upside NOT a top-10 team with Final 4 upside...