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How can you grade coaching?

Xavier’s season has well and truly gone now, but the blame for that doesn’t rest on the head man.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Xavier
“Have you tried cloning yourself yet?”
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

It’s another article that starts with a reminder that this season has been something less than a fairytale for Xavier fans. Recently, an article that Xavier just keeps finding new and varied ways to lose prompted some discussion that the coaching was the thing holding this team back. If only there had been excellent experienced coach to take over this team, the Musketeers would be going like gangbusters. It’s time to dig into that idea.


This is the most significant reason that Xavier isn’t doing as well this year. That’s obviously true on its face, but we’ll flesh it out a bit. JP Macura and Trevon Bluiett are currently in the NBA. Kaiser Gates is going for 11.8/6/1.8 on 35% three point shooting in the G League. Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter are both playing professionally in Europe. Xavier has never had a talent exodus anything close to that in program history.

To replace that the Musketeers scrambled and brought in three grad transfers and two freshman. One of the freshman, Dontarious James, has played in eight games after coming in a two star recruit. Keonte Kennedy was a four star per only ESPN, but was projected as a project. He’s looked every bit of that so far. Of the three grad transfers, only Zach Hankins, who has been an absolute stud, has come close to the talent he’s replacing. There’s a serious talent deficit there.

The lament “there’s so much talent on this team” so oft repeated rings a little hollow when examining the returning players as well. Tyrique Jones and Paul Scruggs have shown this year as they step into more significant roles. Naji Marshall and Quentin Goodin have not. Goodin is a pass first point guard who is a career 29% three point shooter and 44.2% shooter inside the arc. That’s not a coaching fault, just a player who isn’t a great shooter. Naji Marshall has played well this year but has been weighed down by his own shooting. His numbers being up across the board is undercut by shooting 84 threes and making them at a 21.4% rate.

It’s reductive, and wrong, to say that this team is talented enough to be significantly better than they are. If there is a reasonable suggestion as to how Coach Steele could turn this collection of parts into a contender, I’ve yet to run across it.


Literal ghosts knocking shots away might explain some of the problems, but this is in reference to the coaches that have held Steele’s seat before him. Sean Miller’s first team struggled, but he had the immense advantage of Xavier not being an established elite for that. He could dog paddle for a year and then have the Atlantic 10 to come roaring back into. Miller’s second season he had Justin Doellman, Justin Cage, BJ Raymond, Josh Duncan, and Stanley Burrell in a team that did enough to beat Gonzaga in the tournament. There’s not generally a lot of critique of Miller’s time at Xavier before he started comparing car makers.

Chris Mack inherited a team with Jordan Crawford, Tu Holloway, and Mark Lyons. That team insulated him from some first year questions, but it only takes a read back through our archives to find that fans savaged Mack as well. Incessant questions about in game adjustments, or the lack thereof, to why in God’s own name is Kenny Frease hedging a guard 35 feet from the basket (seriously, why?), Mack was blasted for his first four years at least. Comments from this very site from as late as 2014 are calling for the winningest coach in program history to be fired. Scan back to the Brawl or that lost final season in the Atlantic 10 and you’ll find serious vitriol directed at the coach.

The point behind all of this is that a new coach coming into Xavier has to contend with the fact that the last two coaches here have been arguably the best two Xavier has ever had. When learning on the job with the shade of a 6-8 coaching mastermind over your shoulder, every mistake becomes more magnified.

What were you expecting?

That remains the main question from this season. What more should Travis Steele be showing? Q isn’t going to turn into Tu, Ryan Welage isn’t going to suddenly learn to play defense as a 6-10 guard, Kyle Castlin isn’t going to shoot like Tre, and no one is going to ever replace JP. If you think this is on Steele, perhaps the fingers should be pointing back. What exactly were you expecting?