Xavier season previews tend to be an exercise in figuring out where all the new, talented pieces will fit in an already well oiled machine. The well-documented woes of this off-season dictate that this year will be much more about rebuilding than reloading. Gaps have appeared in the starting lineup at literally every position with Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, Dez Wells, Andre Walker, and Kenny Frease all gone.
That doesn't mean that Coach Chris Mack is completely without options though. Depth has been added down low in the form of James Farr, Isaiah Philmore, Eric Stenger and Chris Cantino. Those four join returnees Travis Taylor and Jeff Robinson. Justin Martin finally has a season under his belt and will join Brad Redford, Dee Davis, and Semaj Christon in the backcourt. Those ten represent the extent of the scholarship players available this year. Because of that, expectations at Xavier are as low as they have been in some time.
Travis Taylor and his 4.5 points is the leading returning scorer this year and figures to earn a starting spot without too much difficulty. In order to be more effective, he'll have to improve on his deplorable 45% mark from the floor last year. The spot next to him is a toss up. James Farr would make an excellent stretch four, but doesn't add a lot in the way of bulk or defensive ability. He should provide an excellent weapon off the bench if he doesn't start. Jeff Robinson also adds little in the way of bulk or defensive ability, and also can't shoot. Robinson may grab the other starting spot on familiarity alone, though it would be unfair to him not to mention his tantalizing athletic ability and the five game run of good numbers it will produce this year.
Eric Stenger presents an interesting choice in the frontcourt. Not terribly gifted as either a pure shooter or a scorer, he nevertheless does all the "little things" that analysts rave about and Coach Mack has spoken of valuing. Isaiah Philmore would probably be the sure thing starter but a knee injury and three game suspension have slowed his impact on the team. Philmore has the big body that has become rare on the roster and couples that with the ability to shoot the ball well. In addition to bringing an impressive scoring record from Towson, Philmore also plays tenacious post defense. Chris Cantino is also on the larger side, though his contributions figure to go more toward the rebounding side of things.
Look for Taylor to start with Robinson alongside to begin with. Last year the scoring threats elsewhere on the court left glue guy Andre Walker free to wreak havoc in a variety of ways. That's not the case now, so Isaiah Philmore will factor more and more into the plans as he gets into game shape. Farr should also take time from Robinson anytime scoring is needed. The frontcourt will only be as good as Travis Taylor is. If he returns to form and remembers how to make a layup it isn't a stretch to imagine him getting 10-12 points a game. If Philmore and Farr can stretch the court a bit and Stenger and Cantino add enough defense and rebounding to keep Robinson on the bench, things could go well.
Fearless Prediction: Taylor will get things together and become the player a lot of us were expecting last year. Isaiah Philmore has a bit of edge on the court that may be just the thing this team needs. When Xavier loses, it will partially be because their relatively slender big men get dominated on the glass. Adding effective weight is difficult, so that will happen. As always, the more time Jeff Robinson spends on the court, the worse things are going. Still, this group should hold its own in most games.
The job of replacing two of the best players in Xavier history lands squarely on the shoulders of Dee Davis and Semaj Christon. In Christon Xavier has landed a guard that will score by attacking the rim and taking on defenders. With height (6'3") that Holloway and Lyons lacked, Christon will not spend as much time floating or fading away, and will spend a great deal more time dunking. Running the point next to him will be the undersized Davis. Dee's main job will be protecting the ball on offense and attacking it defense.
The rest of the backcourt is composed of two very different three point specialists. Crowd favorite Brad Redford returns for his senior season as fit as he has ever been and as close to healthy as he will ever be. A slow start to last year left him with a 34% mark from deep but make no mistake, he is still absolutely deadly as a spot up shooter. Justin Martin has the body and rebounding ability to make him a matchup nightmare on the outside, but spent most of last year in some sort of daze. If he lives up to his billing he is a shooter that can't be left alone and also a threat to post smaller guards.
This season hinges on to a great extent on Justin Martin. Christon is going to get his points regardless of the number of shots he has to take to get them. Davis is going to add a bit on offense but mostly be there to keep things running smoothly and keep the ball moving. If Martin becomes the player he was billed to be, this season is greatly different. The potential matchup issue on the wing that he would present would keep teams off the bigs down low and keep help a step slow to react to Christon slashing at the rim. In a bigger lineup, Martin could play the two and terrorize smaller guards inside.
Fearless Prediction: This is where we see what Coach Mack can do. If the apathetic Justin Martin of last year is replaced with a motivated version and Xavier isn't afraid to work matchups, this backcourt could thrive. Is that likely? Unfortunately, it probably isn't. Inexperience is going to be an issue and Brad Redford is, for all his effort, pretty much one-dimensional. This backcourt could probably survive if the frontcourt was truly dominant, but it isn't.