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Griffin McKenzie and Building a Champion

Griffin McKenzie in his natural habitat.
Griffin McKenzie in his natural habitat.

As you may have noticed, Kentucky won the national championship the other day. The result of that game was something less than a foregone conclusion, but only just. The Wildcats were the most talented team from the outset of the season; the only question was whether they could avoid the strange things that can happen in single-elimination tournaments well enough to win six straight in March and early April and take home the crown. Obviously, they did.

That team was built in large part on the 2011 recruiting class that John Calipari brought in. It's no secret that "Coach Cal" puts together his teams under the assumption that he can bring in a handful of highly-talented players (in this case, four five-star recruits) and construct a very successful season around them. This leaves his teams very young (only five schools played with less experience on the floor than UK this year) and usually shallow (Kentucky was 323rd in bench minutes this season). Then most or all of those players head to the NBA after their compulsory year in school, and Calipari starts all over again.

This is, of course, the exact opposite of how Xavier teams are put together. With the exception of extremely talented players like Dezmine Wells, freshmen usually come into Xavier to play contributing roles. As the player's career progresses and he develops, his minutes go up in accordance to the amount of responsibility he can handle. Recently departed senior Tu Holloway is a great example of someone who was pretty good as a freshman, very good as a sophomore, and excellent his last two years. Kenny Frease had a similar but slower developmental arc.

All that to say this: Griffin McKenzie's departure from Xavier signals more than just the opening of a scholarship for a potential transfer (Alex Oriakhi?) or addition to the incoming class. It was the final sign of a complete breakdown of the system. The 2010 recruiting class was supposed to be a coup for Coach Mack. Jay Canty, Jordan Latham, Griffin McKenzie, and Justin Martin were all well-regarded coming out of their respective high schools or prep academies. All of those guys would be rising juniors for Xavier right now if all had gone to plan. Instead, only Martin remains, and his contribution to the program has not been what fans hoped it would be so far.

This, combined with the 2009 class consisting solely of Jeff Robinson, has left a hole in the Xavier program. Most schools - and certainly schools outside of the big six conferences - build their rosters in tiers, with one class tying into the one before it and behind it. When a class fails - or two classes fail, like the 2009 and 2010 classes mostly have for Xavier - it leaves a gap that can't be easily filled. Last season, that showed up as a complete lack of bench production for X. This year - despite Coach Mack's efforts to plug the hole with transfers - the Musketeers' power forward position was a complete loss for long stretches of the season. Robinson, McKenzie, and Latham all failed to remedy that problem despite being recruited primarily to play next to Big Kenny.

The good news is that, despite those flaws, Xavier is still one of the most successful programs in the country. The Muskies have gone to 4 out of the last 5 Sweet Sixteens despite having five players over the course of a pair of recruiting classes that still haven't combined to score as many points as Tu Holloway did in his sophomore year. The moral of the story is that Xavier needs to get everything - everything - exactly right to be able to reach the goals the program sets for itself. Griffin McKenzie's departure is a reminder that - even during the most successful run in the school's history - there are still improvements to be made to get over the next hurdle. The incoming freshman class looks like another step in the right direction. Landing a big-bodied post player to compliment Xavier's front line of willow athletes would certainly also qualify as such. McKenzie is now part of the program's history; Xavier is still moving forward.