Looking Ahead: The Big Men

If all goes well over the summer, it will take at least two opponents to slow down Isaiah Philmore. - USA TODAY Sports

Travis Taylor's departure leaves a gap in the ranks, but Xavier will still have at least six scholarship bigs for the 2013-2014 season.

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and I'm sitting behind a keyboard trying to come up with passive-aggressive jabs I can take at the Reds. That all adds up to mean one thing: summer - or college basketball's extended version thereof - is upon us. Brad performed a detailed autopsy on the season last week (it can be found here, if you're still catching up), and I looked at the forecast for Xavier's guard play in the 2013-2014 season yesterday. Today, we'll take a peek at the frontcourt.

We'll start with the returning players, working from most senior on down, and that means Isaiah Philmore is at the top of the pile. After his redshirt season due to the NCAA's transfer rules, Philmore flashed an array of impressive skills in his first year on the floor for X. He was the best offensive rebounder on the team in terms of OReb%, owing more to his positioning and strength than athleticism. He showed nice touch around the rim with both hands and an admirable commitment to ball security on offense. He also busted out the nastiest open-court spin move you're likely to ever see from a man of his stature.

His three-point ability was touted as a bonus skill, but he put up a grim 15.4% mark from deep (though he did at least have the sense to stop shooting them). He was very good at getting to the line all year, but it took a late burst of effectiveness to get his FT% up to a still poor 62.7%. While his post moves look deft and deceptive when they're working, they seem slow and predictable when he isn't able to get to an effective angle to score the basketball. Also, he was the last Xavier player to put a meaningful touch on the ball this year, and we all remember how that worked out.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
With the image of his last shot burned into his retinas, Philmore works like a maniac on his game all year and is ready to go for the new season. Working within the limits that God placed upon him, he continues to display a delightful level of guile around the rim, flashing scoring moves to both hands like Jason Love in his pomp. The three-point shot is available but not necessary, as Philmore uses his lower-body strength to grind opponents to dust in the paint, scoring, working the glass, and converting from the line.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
With the image of his last shot burned into his retinas, Philmore's confidence is tenuous at best all year. The step up from A-10 opponents to those of the Big East is a daunting challenge for the former Towson star, and the level of athleticism leaves Isaiah working from behind all year. He still finds ways to be effective carving out real estate to work the glass, but his effectiveness in being able to score a basket of his own device is sorely blunted.

There always seems to be a gap between the potential evident in Justin Martin and the actual output Xavier receives from him. Fortunately for Musketeer fans, Jeff Robinson has gotten us ready to deal with just such a thing. Martin showed up early in the season, scoring from all manner of positions on the court, flashing plus rebounding from the small forward position, and generally looking like he was going to be the player Xavier was looking for as a complement Semaj Christon and Travis Taylor. Martin has the kind of languid athletic ability that allows him to score in bursts and grab improbable rebounds that leave opponents wondering how he made that look so easy.

Other times, Martin makes what he does look easy because standing on the periphery and watching the game happen around you is easy. He can go through stretches where it looks like his role on the team is to come in, pick up a couple of silly fouls and a turnover, and head back to the bench, preferably less than a minute later. For Martin, it's much less a question of improving his skill set as opposed to one of applying it. When JMart disappears from a game, he is absolutely gone.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
Thanks to a year at prep school and another as a partial qualifier, Martin is a junior who has been out of high school for five years. With that much post-secondary experience under his belt, it all falls into place for him. He's not the kind of player who relishes having the team depend on him as a primary option every game, but the talent Xavier has around him allows him to be able to show up and have stretches in which he carries the team with his obvious basketball gifts.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
Martin makes the Muskie faithful start resigning themselves to the idea that he'll never get it. He drifts in and out of games, occasionally making things look so easy that you wonder why he doesn't just dominate whenever he wants to while other times looking like this is his first game of organized basketball at any level. Pretty much the same thing that he did last year, really.

James Farr got enough playing time to technically use a year of eligibility last year without really affecting the course of the season much more than you or I did. When he did get onto the court, Farr showed some encouraging signs, chief of which is that he's a massive human being. He also absolutely destroyed Fairleigh Dickinson (for what that's worth) with his outside shooting and blocked a surprising number of shots considering his limited playing time.

There was a reason that he didn't play much, though, and that reason was the coaching staff's concerns about his ability to play defense during the meaningful portion of the game. Word was that the team was working on his flexibility as well as his recognition of the overall defensive scheme in place. You can't tell too much about a guy who played 42 minutes, but the fact that he played 42 minutes probably also provides information.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
Farr begins (continues?) to develop into what a segment of the Xavier fan base expected Griffin McKenzie to be. His size combined with his outside shooting allow him to be the perfect pick-and-pop big man for Coach Mack's ball screen offense, and the worm finally turns for a Xavier team used to getting destroyed by stretch fours. Defense is a cornerstone of Mack's philosophy and therefore still an issue for Farr, but he is serviceable enough on that end to garner decent minutes and lay to rest the fears that his scholarship is going to waste.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
Flexibility is one of those things that is kind of an innate trait, and all the yoga and stretching in the world can only go so far in helping it. Saddled with the label of a lumbering big man on a team with high flyers like Jalen Reynolds and Melvin Swift coming in to gobble up his minutes, Farr stays planted on the bench until a desperation three-point try is needed. Disillusioned, he transfers to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he stars for two years before graduating.

Due to a three-game showcase he played in two years ago while he was a junior college player trying to find a school that would let him finish his four-year degree, Chris Cantino showed up on Xavier's campus with a single year of eligibility left despite having only played two years of college ball. Coach Mack let him redshirt last year, which was the right thing to do, but it cost Xavier valuable depth last year and Xavier fans a chance to see Cantino play. What information there is on Cantino indicates that he works hard on the glass at both ends and is a tough, physical ballplayer.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
At 6'7", 240, Cantino is a bull in the paint, creating space in the middle for rebounders like Jalen Reynolds and Justin Martin to attack. He is able to take on the opposing teams' more physical forwards, taking the burden of interior defense off of Philmore and Stainbrook. There is rumor that he has a good mid-range game, but any offensive contribution from him is beyond my ability to prognosticate with any confidence considering the information at hand.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
Cantino's skill set is just like Isaiah Philmore's, but worse. Both guys are big and thick, but the rumors of Cantino's offensive limitations are sadly accurate. With Philmore and Matt Stainbrook handling the role of being the real-estate player in the middle, Cantino's season at Xavier never gains traction. All the Muskies get out of him is his impressive ink and awesome nickname ("Sneaker Stacker", if you were wondering). At least he gets his degree.

Matt Stainbrook has already made a big impression on the Xavier fans, thanks in large part to his unique sartorial choices during his redshirt year. Stainbrook came from Western Michigan with a reputation as a skilled post player with questionable work habits and a bad attitude. He has allayed a number of the concerns surrounding him simply by dropping a second-grader, and the fact that he was elected co-captain by his teammates despite currently being tied with me in minutes in a Xavier uniform speaks volumes regarding his standing on the team.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
Stainbrook's refined offensive game and sheer size make him the all-conference center Coach Mack said he would be. Because of his willingness and ability to pass out of the post, teammates are more than happy to dump the ball in to him and let him work inside-out to create looks for the perimeter talent. A year of fitness training and refining his game give him the legs to go 30 minutes per contest and enough of a jumper to be a threat on the pick-and-pop and as a trail man on the fast break.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
All the fitness in the world doesn't make a guy invulnerable, and the knee issues that put Stainbrook under the knife continue to bother him all season. Without enough regular time to fit into the flow of the offense, he finds himself playing second fiddle to the attack-minded guards on the roster. A long, frustrating season sees Stainbrook averaging 7 and 4, needing help on defense, and popping in and out of the lineup depending on his fickle weight-bearing joints.

When Jalen Reynolds signed with Xavier, Jeff Goodman wrote an article gushing about the forward's future at X. Thanks to some eligibility issues, that article will be two years old before Reynolds ever plays a minute for the Muskies. The big (6'9", 222) forward is an incredible athlete, though, and has a respectable amount of refinement to his offensive game. He has enough of a jumper to keep defenses honest and is carrying enough timber to get into the middle and mix it up. He'll be turning 21 this December, so his physical maturity will play right away.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
Reynolds' athleticism and offensive prowess have him challenging for minutes right away. His ability to get above the crowd on the glass and finish hard on offense remind Xavier fans of a motivated, aggressive JRob, and he shows enough offensive skill in the open court and away from the basket to keep teams from being able to guard him without help. He pushes for starter's minutes by the midpoint of the season and is a big part of Xavier's ascent in the Big East.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
A year off competitive basketball is hard for anyone, no matter how talented he is, and the same holds true for Reynolds. Even in this case, he has the physical tools to make an impact on the boards, but his defense is a step behind and his offensive tools are rusty. He shows enough raw ability to have Musketeers fans drooling over his potential in the future, but the most important minutes of the game go elsewhere this coming season.

Kamall Richards comes to Xavier by way of South Kent, where he spent a year polishing his game and also no doubt pursuing his academic passions. He is a lefty with enough range to hit open three-pointers and the quickness to get to the rim off of the bounce. While his game could use some refinement - especially in his shot selection and defensive prowess - he has the build to be effective as a finisher from the wing right now.

Best case 2013-2014 scenario:
Richards' jumper is consistent all year and he is consistently able to draw contact when he drives. He grabs 10-15 minutes per game as a bench scorer and pushes JMart to new heights by challenging for his playing time. His on-ball defense continues to progress as the season goes on, and he demonstrates a solid understanding of the principles Coach Mack is trying to put in play at both ends of the floor.

Worst case 2013-2014 scenario:
Richards is unable to discern the difference between the time to attack and the time to rotate the ball, and his aggressiveness ultimately makes him unreliable on the offensive end. He has trouble grasping the team's defense and ends up on an island too often to be a viable option for more than a couple of minutes at a time. The transition to the college game is hard, and Richards heads into the summer with a laundry list of things to work on in the gym.

Much like with the backcourt - and much as one would anticipate with a team that is bringing in at least six new scholarship players - there are plenty of question marks among Xavier's big men. Only Isaiah Philmore seems like a reliable bet at this point, and even a cynic could argue that his end of the season form was a hot streak, not him settling in. Cantino and Stainbrook will be facing a higher level of competition than in their previous college careers, Reynolds will be trying to adjust after a year off, and it would be unfair to Richards to expect too much out of him as a freshman. Justin Martin is the very embodiment of a question mark.

On the other hand, the talent is obviously there, Erik Stenger has a good deal of experience for a non-scholarship player, and Coach Mack still has the chance to bring in one or two more immediately eligible bigs with his remaining open scholarships. Reports regarding the incoming players have been almost universally encouraging (though aren't they always?), and there could be meaningful, talented depth in the paint that has been lacking the past couple of years. It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the frontcourt is a massive strength for Xavier in the 2013-2014 season.

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