Xavier announced its non-conference schedule earlier this week, which is another mile marker on the long road from the end of one season to the beginning of the next. Aside from the major signing periods, nothing particularly interesting is slated to happen in the college basketball summer (last year being an obvious exception to this rule for X). Players work out, coaches fly all over the country to watch high school kids play, rumors fly everywhere. Much later, basketball begins.
The summer isn't a complete desert, though. The savvy basketball fan will use the time to stockpile the information necessary to leap into the season with both feet once things start taking off. Towards that end, we will be spending the hotter months profiling Xavier's non-conference schedule, getting you acclimated to the Muskies' new conference, and keeping you up to date on player news as it develops. To kick off, we have Gardner Webb, Xavier's first non-conference opponent.
Chris Holtmann was an assistant at Gardner Webb before leaving in 2008 to serve under John Groce at Ohio University. While there, he honed his reputation as a fine defensive tactician as well as being a good recruiter, and he landed the job at Gardner Webb for the 2010-2011 season. After a couple of frankly miserable seasons in which the Bulldogs combined to win 21 games, they matched that total in one shot in the 2013 season. Even considering their less than distinguished schedule, that leap forward is certainly admirable.
Holtmann's teams are noteworthy first and foremost for their pace, which is extremely slow. From the breakneck heights of around 65 possessions per game (mid-200s in the nation) over the previous two years, GW plummeted to a staggeringly slow 62.9 last season. This seemed to pay limited dividends on the offensive end, where their 35.5% OR% was undermined by a TO% of 20.9% and an EFG% of 46.8, both of which put them well below 200th in the country. Defensively, the forced TO at a rate you might expect from a more exciting team (23.4%, good for 25th in the country), but were only mediocre on the defensive glass and in forcing missed shots. That all combined for a defensive efficiency of 98.8, which was 129th nationally.
Three of the Runnin' Bulldogs' top four scorers will not be returning this season. Perhaps most painfully, guard Tashan Newsome graduated, taking his 14.1/5.1/2.6 game line on .432/.250/.726 shooting with him. He was not a super-efficient scorer, but a usage rate of 28.6% heading out the door is hard to replace. Even more difficult will be filling in for the 115.6 ORtg that forward Kevin Hartley put up, good for 9.6/6.4/0.9 on .478/.468/.711 with 1.7 steals per game if you prefer those stats. Hartley hit 73 3FG last year, which is an impressive tally, especially so considering how well he kept his percentage up.
Finally, and somewhat confusingly, rising junior guard Max Landis too his decent 7.9/1.4/1.4 game line and abysmal .336/.286/.860 shooting line and left for IPFW, who apparently needed a shameless volume shooter. His ORtg was not bad thanks to his proficiency at the free throw line, but his shot selection was so abusive that his EFG% was a horrible 43.1%.
Rising junior Donta Harper, a 6'6", 180-pound forward, is the Runnin' Bulldogs' leading returning scorer and rebounder, putting up 12.7/4.9/2.1 on .449/.133/.719 shooting last season. He also had the team's highest usage rate, so he's not exactly going to be stepping into a larger role. Rising sophomore Jerome Hill is a 6'5", 210-pound forward. His 6.1/4.7/0.2 line is good, but he is really noteworthy for his 15.2% OReb%, which was 23rd in the nation last year. The dude is relentless on the (offensive) glass.
Five-foot-nine guard Tyler Strange got 30.4 minutes per game last year en route to a respectable 5.6/2.6/4.1 on .365/.287/.724 shooting. He was first on the team in assist rate (27.1%) and second in steal% (3.2%). Other notable returnees include 6' guard Jarvis Davis, who hit 27 of his 29 free throw attempts last year, and 6'6" forward Onzie Branch, who has a cool name.
Holtmann has restocked the pond with a resourceful mix of players. Perhaps foremost among these is Naji Hibbert, a 6'5" senior guard who sat out last year after transferring in from Texas A&M. A widely heralded recruit out of college, Hibbert struggled to find a stride at A&M. He hit almost 35% of his threes the last year he played, so it's not inconceivable that a player of his talent could be a force for Gardner Webb. Joining Hibbert is immediately-eligible transfer guard Josh Castellanos from Mount St. Mary's. Castellanos put up 4.3/1.2/3.2 on .346/.200/.694 shooting last year, but he did average 8.1 PPG the year before. At worst, he's depth in the backcourt, though it's possible he steps up to be more than that.
On the freshman side of things, the Bulldogs brought in a pair of power forwards. Donnell Tuff is a physical finisher inside with enough strength to be a good area rebounder. At 6'5", though, he's undersized for a true four and not quick enough to guard a three. He averaged 13 and 10 with 7 blocks per game as a junior, though that may say more about his competition than his ability to turn shots around at the D-1 level. Tyrell Nelson is a 6'8", 210-pounder who averaged 21/12/2 as a senior. He had offers from Liberty, NC A&T, Charleston Southern, and other similar schools, but chose to sign with Gardner Webb.
Gardner Webb is the perfect warm-up game for Xavier to ease into the season. They - and I'm being overly frank here - don't have the talent level to beat the Muskies outright, but they do have the experience and acumen to punish X if they don't bring a solid game to the table. For a team that at times struggled to hold onto the basketball, Gardner Webb's turnover defense should be a good early marker for Xavier. The Runnin' Bulldogs aren't an entirely toothless foe, but there is only one reason this game would show up in Xavier's tournament resume. A win will keep that embarrassing eventuality from taking place.