If you are basketball fan, you grew up imagining and playing out various scenarios in your driveway or on your nerf hoop that involved you being an otherworldly offensive force, single-handedly humiliating wave after wave of helpless defenders while dragging your admiring teammates to glory. Most of us did not run around imagining ourselves as a guy whose greatest impact was in preventing his opponent from scoring, and then taking what he could in the flow of the offense.
A large part of why Remy Abell was not heralded outside of Xavier fandom is traced back to just such a mindset. Remy was not the guy to run out and throw up 15 shots, hoping to get hot enough to justify it. He was out there to makes sure whoever the opponent's biggest threat was, whether D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Kris Dunn, or Mo Watson, was not going to get hot. For two seasons, we got to watch what complete unselfishness and buying into the mentality of team over self looks like thanks to Remy Abell bing a Xavier Musketeer.
Remy began his college career at Indiana, where he was a bit player for a pair of Sweet Sixteen squads and developed into a useful 3 and D guy off the bench for the Hoosiers. However, seeing his playing time not take a marked increase his sophomore year after some early struggles in Big Ten play, Abell transferred to Xavier in the summer of 2013, meaning he would be eligible for the 2014-2015 season. Abell's reputation for high octane breakaways and rabid defense were things X fans were excited about, but his mentality may have proved to be his biggest asset.
Stepping onto one of the most talent-heavy rosters in Xavier history, it would have been easy for Abell to try too hard to make his mark on offense and force his game. However, it took until the 8th game of the season for his usage rate to make 20%, when he was pressed into duty as point guard against Alabama and responded with 12/4/5 in Xavier win. Abell's best work was when Xavier needed a lockdown on ball defender, a role that no one else on the team really fit. Preseason Big East Player of the Year D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera found life difficult with Abell around, scoring 31 points in two meetings, but needing 23 shots to get there and racking up 3 turnovers for every assist. Another of Abell's memorable moments came when he nailed 5 threes, a pair of them huge shots late in the game, to hold off Matt Carlino and Marquette at Cintas Center. His best game of the season offensively came in a loss at Butler where he piled up 15/4/1 despite only attempting 5 field goals. It was a performance that typified Abell's approach to offense: he was not going to force his game, but if he had a chance to make his opponents pay for not giving him the proper attention, he was more than capable of making it count.
Abell's senior season saw his playing time decrease as Xavier switched increasingly to the 1-3-1 defense that did not require his on the ball abilities a frequently, but he was still a major factor. He and the team made clear they were to be taken seriously by thrashing Michigan on the road, a game in which Abell scored 15 points on 8 shots and gave Derrick Walton fits on defense. With Xavier boasting an array of offensive weapons so vast as to be impossible to have all going at once, Abell often found himself marginalized on offense. He popped up with 11 in Xavier's demolition of Dayton in Orlando, but never cracked double digits in December.
When Xavier lost in a landslide at Villanova, losing Edmond Sumner in the process, hands were beginning to be wrung with 10th ranked Butler's visit impending and the spectre of an 0-2 start to Big East play looming. In that situation, Abell played the game for which he will be remembered at Xavier. Butler star Kellen Dunham would be completely taken out of the game by Abell, rendering the Bulldogs' attack inefficient in an incredibly hostile Cintas Center. Abell himself would play as close to the perfect offensive game as possible, garnering a line of 21/4/1 with no turnovers on 7-8/3-3/4-5 shooting and an ORtg of 205. When X fans recall what Abell brought to the table this season, they would do well to remember that the first time the wheels started to wobble, he was the one who put on a performance for the ages on both ends to turn what could have been a tense affair for Musketeers faithful. And he did it while only taking 8 field goals.
Of course the story has a memorable end as well, albeit a bitter one. Abell was Xavier's best player in the Round of 32 clash against Wisconsin, getting 13/4/2 without turning the ball over and keeping Wisconsin star Bronson Keonig under wraps for most of the second half. In the end, though, he ended his career in as heartbreaking a fashion as any Musketeer has: with his hands still up in a defensive stance as Wisconsin's celebration kicked off all around him. In a bitter bit of irony, Abell had answered the rare call for him to be individually brilliant on offense capably, but the cast he typically deferred to was unequal to the task that night.
Beyond his numbers and beyond the numbers of whomever he was guarding, Abell brought something to the table for Xavier that was nearly as important as his notable basketball skills. Abell was a warrior on the court. He would get after a loose ball or offensive rebound with the larger guys on the floor, and come away with it more than his fair share of the time because of his willingness to outhustle and bring more intensity than his opponent. Sports commentators will often blather on about what team wants to win a game more, which is a ridiculous thing to say about athletes who devote countless hours to a sport, trying to better themselves so as to beat whatever opponent they may face.
Abell's was something else, though. He had the ability to read the game, know when there was a chance to make a hustle play, and then get there, ready to make the play, faster than anyone else. Abell would find gaps as an opponent jogged back and blow through them for an easy score. He would see where an opponent's pass was going and get to the passing lane before the ball could. He would see a chance at a rebound someone else was expecting to just come to them and grab it before they could. It wasn't about some guy trying hard and everyone else not caring if they won or lost, like apparently every announcer who has ever watched Dustin Pedroia thinks, it was a guy with an understanding of the game and the ability to make tough plays to make his opponents uncomfortable.
As we say farewell to Remy Abell, talk will inevitably turn to how to replace him. Offensively, Abell had good efficiency numbers, shot well from three, and took care of the ball well. He was always a threat in transition with his breakout speed, and made good decisions once in transition a majority of the time. All that being said, Remy's offense is not what Xavier needs to worry about replacing. Abell had the ability on defense to take an assignment one on one and make the opponent gameplan for how to get points without that guy. He was good on the wings of the 1-3-1, but his true value showed in man to man settings. Xavier doesn't have anyone else on the roster right now that has the mix of size, speed, quickness, and strength Remy brought to the table, not to mention his focus on the defensive end of the court. However, Xavier may well find that Kaiser Gates or Larry Austin Jr. can develop Remy's knack for neutralizing an assignment.
Where X is sure to miss Remy is in his mentality. Xavier has never had a player quite like Abell in his willingness to forgo his own offensive game in order to get others their looks. Abell clearly had offensive capabilities, but bought into his role as a less used option wholeheartedly until time came for him to step out and make things happen again. It was truly a joy to watch Remy on his day as an opponent would try to halt a Xavier run with a double team or zone only for the previously forgotten Abell to cock back in his distinctive shooting motion and bury the dagger to put X firmly in control. Abell may have ended his career on a sour note, but if you take a look back at all he did in two season at X, he gave us as fans and himself plenty to be happy about. And he did it in a mind-blowingly small number of field goal attempts.