Key Returners: Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones, Paul Scruggs
Key Losses: Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura, Kerem Kanter, Kaiser Gates, Sean O'Mara
Key Newcomers: Ryan Welage (San Jose St.), Kyle Castlin (Columbia), Zach Hankins (Ferris St.), Jake Walter, Keonte Kennedy, Dontarius James
Outlook: Can the Musketeers continue their insane hot streak? No, I don’t mean winning the Big East one time in a row, or their weird pattern of going further in the tournament when they’re a low seed – although seriously, what the heck is up here?
Love to be the hunter, hate to be the hunted, apparently. But no, I’m talking about the outrageous streak of tremendously successful hires as head coach. Any school would kill for a run like Pete Gillen -> Skip Prosser -> Thad Matta -> Sean Miller -> Chris Mack (implications about not being a destination school be damned), and that leaves new head man Travis Steele with Bozo the Clown-sized shoes to fill.
Thankfully for Steele, Mack didn’t leave the cupboard entirely bare. Xavier had perhaps its most decorated recruiting class ever in 2017 (only 2014 really competes), and those rising sophomores provide the framework around which Steele can build a contending squad. Both Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall were Top 70 recruits in ESPN’s top 100, and along with Elias Harden, they’ll be relied upon heavily in their second go-rounds for the Musketeers.
Of course, Steele did his own share of work on the roster this offseason, securing commitments from three grad transfers – Ryan Welage (San Jose State), Kyle Castlin (Columbia), and Zach Hankins (D-II player of the year at Ferris State) – each of whom will play an important role in Steele’s inaugural campaign. Welage brings offensive firepower, Castlin is a tremendous defender, and Hankins looks capable of helping on both ends in what should be a talented frontcourt duo with Tyrique Jones.
The most important piece this year, though, is rising junior and likely team leader Quentin Goodin. The point guard has plenty of experience after starting for a year and a half under Mack, and his most notable weakness – his outside shot – started to emerge as a weapon in Big East play. After a ghastly 1/15 performance in non-conference play, Goodin shot a crisp 17/43 (39.5%) in Big East contests, and that threat from deep is enough to draw out defenders and give him even more room to do what he does best – attack in the lane and find shooters/finishers.
Goodin, like much of the roster, excels in transition. Marshall and Scruggs are weapons in the open court (particularly with a year under their belts), so expect Steele to allow his team to get up and down when opportunities present themselves (and he has made that tempo a clear goal in offseason interviews). Mack teams were also renowned for their fantastic execution in the halfcourt, using clever motion and a lot of decoy movement to open up players in ideal places. The current roster has some clear strengths/weaknesses, so Steele will need to be mindful of these to get his players in the right spot. Welage is a significant weapon from deep, a pure shooter who should be even better in a complementary role – he was often the focus of defenses at SJSU, but as a secondary option and floor spacer, he’ll be prolific.
Traditional Xavier teams have also excelled at attacking the rim, both via the offensive glass and drawing contact to get to the line. Jones is a manchild on the glass, and we at 3MW have had an affinity for him since his freshman year, so we’re looking for a breakout from him. Hankins was also 23rd in all of D-II in offensive rebounds per game. As for the free throws, Goodin, Scruggs, and Marshall can all get to the rim, meaning the parade to the line should continue.
The biggest improvements from last year’s 1-seed and Big East champ can be made on defense. Trevon Bluiett was a knockdown shooter, but he was never a good defender, Kerem Kanter was abysmal, and the team as a whole was prone to lapses on that end. The pieces for a good (or even very good) defense are here, though. Marshall has excellent physical tools, and Steele has talked up Harden as a potential lockdown defender. Scruggs, Castlin, and Goodin are all athletic, big guards that can get after it on the perimeter. And perhaps most importantly, the team will trade minutes from ground-bound bigs in Kanter and Sean O’Mara for more time for the physical Jones and Hankins, who averaged 3.3 blocks per game, albeit at the D-II level.
Schematically, it remains to be seen exactly where Steele falls on D. Mack was known for mixing in quite a few zones, notably a 1-3-1 with a lanky player causing problems at the top and a conservative 2-3, but he eased off that last year, per Synergy data:
This year’s team looks like it has the athletes to play a much more intimidating man-to-man, as nearly everyone except Welage projects to be an above average defender. I doubt Steele completely abandons the zone looks, as they’re valuable in keeping offenses off balance, but the defensive ceiling is higher if man-to-man is the dominant choice.
Bottom Line: Turnover abounds in Cincinnati, as the Musketeers must integrate 3 new grad transfers and 3 freshmen (Matt Stainbrook-sized big Jake Walter, athletic forward Dontarius James, wing Keonte Kennedy) while losing a head coach and two of the better players in program history (plus others). Still, though, the roster has plenty of potential – were Mack in charge, this would be a borderline top 25 team, but we’re hedging our bets a bit until we see Steele prove himself to be in his predecessor's echelon.