“Death, taxes, and Xavier in the Sweet 16.” That was the tweet two years ago when the Musketeers knocked off Florida State and, with a couple of exceptions, it has generally been the case for the last 15 years. Much like you can always pencil the one seeds in to win their first round game, (that’s safe, right?) you can almost safely assume that Xavier will be there on the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. There are hiccups along the way, but if Ohio’s professional teams let you down, you can rely on the Musketeers.
The one exception that rule has generally been that awkward shift when one coach leaves and another arrives. Coach Mack suffered a dip as Sean Miller’s players left, and Miller himself missed the tournament completely the year after Thad Matta left. Once again, Xavier finds itself in the place of being a program conditioned to success in a situation more expected to lead to failure.
Further hampering any sort of ease in period that new coach Travis Steele could have hoped for is the fact that the Musketeers are coming off their most successful season ever. An abortive tournament run hardly takes away from a consistent ranking in the top five and the first Big East championship in school history. The fanbase isn’t one that is notoriously fickle, but neither will a staggering start be accepted. Coach Steele steps into what is undoubtedly both the best, and the most fraught with danger, position any Xavier coach has.
How does that impact Xavier this year? For starters, the Musketeers lost a lot. The second leading scorer in program history, the beating heart of the team, and the two most efficient offensive players from last year are all gone. There’s simply no way to replace all that without getting into Calipari territory. Xavier is going to take a step back this year in terms of being the nearly all-conquering machine they were last regular season. Expecting the eighth most efficient team in the nation to re-appear is both unrealistic and unfair. Last year was a historically good one, and it is over. The players that carried the program the last four years are gone, and they can’t be easily replaced, if they can be replaced at all.
X is also losing an all-time great coach. There’s been the usual backlash from the jilted, but pretending that Chris Mack was anything other than the best that Xavier has ever had is foolhardy. It was his work that made the Musketeers what they are today. More than that, he brought a barely disguised killing edge to the team that he fostered and nourished. It takes someone very adept at man management to get the best out of gentle giant Sean O’Mara and a guy like JP Macura who has never seen a fight he didn’t want to join or an moment where he couldn’t create conflict. Mack did all that and more.
That harsh bit of news aside, there is reason to hope that Xavier is once again going to be a second weekend of March contender. For starters, the architect of that offense is now the head coach of the team. For the basketball connoisseur, Xavier’s offense last year was something to be savored. The actions and quick in possession adjustments they made were quite possibly the best in the nation. (Only Villanova ran a scheme that seemed as fluid and adaptive. You may recall they were pretty good.) Even if the pieces that will fit into that machine aren’t as advanced, there’s good reason to believe that Steele can continue finding points through execution alone.
And then there’s defense. Rumor has it that Xavier played last year, but there’s not a terribly compelling body of evidence to prove that. Steele has already pledged that he will make that better and listed the players he will use to do it. The idea of three quarter court pressure with Naji Marshall, Kaiser Gates, Elias Harden, Quentin Goodin, and Paul Scruggs flying around the court is delicious. The bones of a good defensive team have always been here, and now the defense won’t be hampered by having to carry players who did their damage solely on the offensive end.
Finally, Xavier returns talent. Four of the five guys in the previous paragraph have proven they can play at the Big East level. Add to that Harden, who Steele thinks will develop this year, an 18 point scorer, a brutally efficient three and D guy, the Division II player of the year, and the three recruits the formed the backbone of the incoming class, and the cupboard isn’t by any means bare. The clay may be a bit more raw than usual, but it is there.
So where does that leave us? Rob Dauster has X as 23rd in the nation right now. That seems fair. There’s no denying that this team will be worse than last year’s was, but that no longer means a plunge off the cliff, or even out of the tournament. Will Xavier be in the 2019 Sweet 16? You may not want to book a hotel yet, but don’t be surprised to see this newest iteration of the Musketeers treading some familiar ground.