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What a Difference a Year Makes

At least they were tall.
Remember last season? What about what your were thinking about the team last year at this time? It's hard to go back that far and not have your view tainted by what you know now, but I recall having lowered expectations. Our best post player and our best perimeter scorer had departed, and it wasn't entirely clear who would be replacing their production. Then Redford and Martin were lost for the year and the question became more about who would play at all rather than who would star. Of course, Tu, Cheek, McLean, and Big Kenny all stepped into larger roles, and Dante and A-Tay spackled in the cracks with a little help from Jeff Robinson.

All that to say this: last season's team was hampered by a complete lack of depth. No team in D-1 basketball got fewer than Xavier's 14% of its minutes off the bench; in fact, nobody was even that close. The team's success last year was testament to Chris Mack's ability to get a lot out of a few guys; the roster this year will offer him an entirely different challenge. To the returning four rotation players, Xavier has added three players with at least a year's experience in the system (Redford, Martin, and Travis Taylor), a guy who was with the team but didn't get a fair shake from luck last year (Griffin McKenzie), a very highly-touted freshman (Dez Wells), and two other freshman who garnered national respect (Dee Davis and Jalen Reynolds). To top it off, the staff just brought in immediately eligible senior Andre Walker from Vanderbilt for the 2011-2012 season.

Coach Mack has some tough decisions to make this year.
This is probably done by equal parts luck and judgment, but Coach Mack is now faced with depth of talent available to few - if any - Xavier coaches of the past. Tu, Cheek, and Big Kenny are all fairly solidly entrenched in their positions, but even those come with some caveats relative to last season. Both of the guards were in the top 100 players in the nation in terms of percentage of the team's minutes played last year, thanks in large part to a bench consisting of Kevin Feeney and one of Brad Redford's legs. While there are now numerous options available to Mack to spell the New York natives, neither of them strike the objective observer as the type of player to willingly relinquish playing time. Frease reshaped his body over last summer and was a viable force during the 70% of each game that he played; look for him to play slightly more this season, but only just.

At the SF/PF positions, there is a morass of talented players looking to fight into starting lineup. Even putting Jalen Reynolds on the back burner for now on account of Mack's habit of bringing freshmen along slowly, five players will be looking to fill at least one of those slots, and at least three of them could reasonably fill either. If Reynolds comes along as quickly as recent reports would indicate he is capable of, his presence further complicates the situation. With Xaviers practice of teaching freshmen only one position, it will be interesting to see where the staff sees fit to train Reynolds.

Beyond that, there's also a consideration of roles to fill. Neither Tu nor Cheek shies away from using his fair share of possessions on the offensive end, and Tu and Kenny also have their respective draft statii to consider. While Walker comes with the reputation of being a player willing to do the little things to keep the team moving forward, he is also a senior on his last year of eligibility. Redford is most useful when he's getting his shots, and Taylor and Martin have both established themselves as viable scorers during their redshirt years. Dee Davis comes in as more of a distributor than a scorer, but he also needs to have the ball in his hands to suit his style of play. Dez Wells is accustomed to being his team's first option on offense, which will throw a further spanner in the works.

Philmore will spend the year looking for a better barber.
The bottom line is that Mack has 13 players on his roster this year, 12 of whom are eligible to play (Isaiah Philmore is taking the year off on account of having transferred from Towson). While this gives him a measure of depth that was sorely lacking in last year's squad, it also muddies what was an extremely clear set of roster decisions. It is widely assumed in the Xavier community that the Muskies have the talent to make a historically deep run this year. What is sometimes overlooked is the amount of effort that is going to have to go in to evaluating who needs to play in what roles and for how long, and what it's going to take to keep each player happy, involved, and ready to play his best come March. Coach Mack showed his chops with a depleted roster last season; it's going to take an equally impressive performance from him and his staff to get this year's team to play to its immense potential.