Now we're really starting to get somewhere. Illinois is one of three states to have given four players to the Mack era Musketeers. A quick trip right across 70 - or more likely a flight landing in Chicago or Springfield - has been hugely profitable for the Xavier staff, resulting in a variety of players stretching from a change of pace point guard to a do everything center.
|Larry Austin Jr.
Let's start with Andre Walker. Walker spent four years at Vanderbilt, having spent a redshirt when he ruptured the ACL in his right knee. Despite some modest numbers as a junior, he was in demand from major Midwest programs including Kansas and Wichita State before signing on the dotted line with Xavier. We knew he was going to be a tough player with a versatile game, but his injury history and limited court time made predicting exactly what Xavier was getting in the graduate transfer kind of an open question.
Walker turned out to be a pretty solid addition for Xavier. Playing at the four for most of the year, he could guard both forward positions, score the ball a little bit, and rebound hard at both ends. He also had exemplary ball skills for a bigger man, averaging nearly two assists per game. He started almost every game, wasn't an obvious weak point in any facet of play, and allowed Tu and Cheeks (and occasionally Dez and/or Kenny) to do their thing.
"Big Game" James Farr signed as a three-star recruit after a prep year at Maine Central Institute. He had a reputation as a mobile, perimeter-oriented big man who could excel off of pick-and-pop action. He stood 6'8", 200 in high school and desperately needed to add strength to get inside and mix it up. His length was noted as an asset, but scouts worried about his tendency to be passive on offense. Ball St., Boise St., and Duquesne all also offered Farr, but he chose Xavier before heading to Maine and stuck with his commitment.
Farr has been three different players at Xavier. As a freshman, he was an anonymous big man who caused fans to wonder why he wasn't given a redshirt. As a sophomore, he was briefly and unstoppable offensive force, raining threes on any opponent who was willing to let him have a clean look at the tin. Since his shot has gone fairly cold, Farr has reinvented himself as a big-time energy guy on the glass, using his growing strength to get into position for boards and his ridiculous wingspan to corral them at a ridiculous rate. He's never going to be a great defender, but he does deserve credit for finding ways to contribute on both ends.
Speaking of big men who had fairly forgettable first years, Sean O'Mara is also from Illinois. The big man from Joliet was scouted as a below-the-rim sort of player with excellent footwork and refined offensive game when he signed with Xavier. Fans pining for the return of Jason Love and feeling spurned by the lack of fulfillment found in Jordan Latham now had another strong, bulky big man upon whom to pin their hopes. Illinois, Iowa State, Dayton, and DePaul were among those who Xavier beat out for O'Mara.
While he got more than double Farr's 42 minutes as a freshman, he still did not crack the rotation on a sustained basis for Xavier. With the Muskies going to a lineup with just one traditional post for much of the stretch and Farr, Reynolds, and Stainbrook all in front of him, O'Mara found minutes hard to come by. He did manage to earn the gold jersey for best practice player on more than one occasion, and he had Coach Mack singing his praises in post-game pressers. Big men usually take longer to develop, so there's every reason to believe that O'Mara will become a staple of the Xavier lineup in the future.
Larry Austin, Jr. was added late in the recruiting cycle after Justin Martin defected to SMU as a grad transfer. A former Tennessee commit, the three-star guard came in having earned his stripes as a game managing pass first point guard in high school. Scouting reports showed a high basketball IQ and good athleticism but noted that Larry needed to continue working on his jumper at the mid-range and three-point levels. Illinois, Iowa, Kansas State, Memphis, and a host of other like schools also offered LAJ a scholarship.
Big minutes at the point were never going to be there for Larry Austin as a freshman, not with Coach Mack riding a senior Dee Davis like Seattle Slew. Austin did supplant Brandon Randolph as the reserve point guard sometime around when conference play was starting, and his fearless attacking always changed the tempo of the game and sometimes even paid off for Xavier. His stat line is unimpressive to say the least, but the tools that earned him his free education were obvious to see when he got out onto the floor.
Illinois has been good to Xavier. Walker was a glue guy from the word go and James Farr is developing into the kind of player who does the dirty work under the rim on both ends and provides value without being overly splashy. Both Austin and O'Mara showed flashes of the kind of tools necessary to compete in the Big East on a regular basis during their freshman campaigns, and they should both be in position to step up a bit this year. Illinois kind of straddles that line between local and regional for X, but the Musketeers' staff has done a good job pulling in talent from the area.