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What is happening to Elias Harden?

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Xavier’s sophomore guard brings a skillset the team needs, but has spent most of the season out in the cold.

NCAA Basketball: Georgetown at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Before this season started most astute followers knew it would be a challenging one for the Musketeers. The struggles so far may not have been foreseeable, but recognizing that this was a transition year didn’t require an advanced degree. One of the players tasked with making that transition a little easier was a guy whose defense incoming coach Travis Steele specifically singled out in a preseason press conference, Elias Harden.

Harden came to Xavier with the reputation as a shooter who was more than adequate defensively. According to ESPN’s recruiting “He’s a good three-point shooter and has a complimenting pull-up game with a high and tight release... [He] is also effective on the defensive end with the versatility to guard multiple positions and a quick twitch like reflex jumping into passing lanes.” He was, in short the kind of young guard that could step into the shoes of the players he spent a year learning under.

This season started with Harden looking like that player. 18 minutes in the first game were followed by 17 in the second. The points weren’t there yet, but Ryan Welage and Paul Scruggs both had turned in monster efforts from guard. Then, in Xavier’s third game, Harden didn’t play. In the next game, an overtime tilt against Auburn in which Xavier got obviously leggy, Harden managed three minutes. In the next two games, he averaged 15 minutes per and rewarded the coaching staff with a line of 23 points on 7-9 from deep and a couple of steals thrown in. Harden looked for all the world like a guy who had found his niche as three and D.

After another 15 against Miami, Harden once again took a DNP. His minutes line since then shows no discernible pattern: 8, 0, 10, 3, 8, 1, 0, 17, 24, 6, 5, 5, 0. There is no consistency, no apparent rhyme or reason to when Harden plays or how much he plays. Sometimes he loses minutes to Keonte Kennedy, another young guard making no discernible impact, sometimes to Ryan Welage, and sometimes to seemingly a whim.

In that 24 minute effort against Georgetown Harden flashed the skills he brings to the table. He was a menace when Xavier went into their hyper-aggressive 2-3, jumping in passing lanes, harassing ballhandlers, and jarring two big three pointers. On a team where success is predicated on everyone being able to fulfill a need, Harden did exactly that. This Xavier squad needs role players to nail their roles. Harden was perfect in his, doing precisely what the team needed to cap an incredible comeback. In the four games since, three of which Xavier has lost, he’s averaged four minutes per game.

Harden’s effort can’t be questioned when he is on the court in game. He gets after it defensively, where he’s certainly no worse than Xavier’s other guard options not named Scruggs or Goodin, he hustles after loose balls, and he looks engaged. Offensively he’s a streaky shooter, but shows signs of being lethal when he gets a game rhythm going. To do that, though, he has to play. Harden has the ability to live up to that scouting report, but he must be starting to ask himself if Xavier is the place he can do it.