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Off to a better start

Year two of the Travis Steele era is already an improvement.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament-Xavier vs Creighton Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a year makes. Last season Xavier was coming into a rebuild with an untested roster, an untested coach, and very little idea of what to expect. When the Musketeers hit the floor last night, they were the #19 team in the nation according to the AP, and full of talent that should have them playing on a stage that matters come March. Accordingly, this season opener felt far different.

If you cast your mind back to November 6th of 2018, you’ll remember that Xavier started last season with a 13 point win over IUPUI. In that game Xavier trailed in the second half, needed 15 straight from Ryan Welage, and looked, frankly, pretty bad. While that could have been written off as first game jitters, it turned out it was an omen for a season that didn’t get rolling until it was too late to matter. Xavier turned the ball over on 17.3% of their possessions, had to play all the big guns until late in the game, and never looked in sync.

Contrast that to last night. While Kansas was busy racking up a 35% turnover rate against Duke, the Musketeers barely cracked 15%. Xavier also made 67.6% of its shots inside the arc, forced a 24.7% turnover rate, dominated the defensive glass, and never once looked like losing. It didn’t take a heroic effort from a guy who now wears a lab coat to get the Musketeers over the line, they simply pounded Jacksonville until it didn’t matter anymore.

To continue with positives isn’t, and shouldn’t be, difficult after a season opener like that. Naji Marshall played downhill and finished well around the rim. His 7-10 from the line was adequate, but looks like a highlight compared to his compatriots. Tyrique Jones scored almost at will, joined Jason Carter and Zach Freemantle with three offensive boards, and played like he knew how much better than Jacksonville’s bigs he was. No one had to play more than 30 minutes, no one had more than two turnovers, no one who played more than two minutes failed to score, and no one watching ever thought Jacksonville might win.

But it is perhaps not all bunnies and rainbows for Xavier. 4-23 behind the arc didn’t matter tonight, but it will against legitimate competition. Quentin Goodin managing a 40 offensive rating behind 2-10 shooting and 5/2/1 isn’t going to get it done against Villanova. Ball movement was also at a premium, with only 11 of Xavier’s 29 makes coming off assists. Perhaps even more concerning than the three point shooting was Xavier’s complete ineptitude at the line. Absent Naji Marshall, the team shot 50% at the line. Even adding in his effort 14-24 seems unlikely to win platitudes. Taking free points is a great way to win close games or add gloss to blowouts. Instead, Xavier left points on the table with a pretty miserable effort.

But this was a win, and basketball being back is a reason for optimism, so here are some more things that went well last night.

  • Dah Bishop looks like a player. Kyky Tandy missed the game due to nagging injury and a desire not to risk him, and Bishop took the chance to make a first impression. He was quick with the ball, decisive, and in attack mode. 2-6 from the floor and 0-2 from the line isn’t great, but six defensive rebounds and Xavier’s only offensive rebound that didn’t come from a big is a great way to impact a game when the shot isn’t falling.
  • Zach Freemantle is ready to play. The big from was authoritative both with and when he wanted the ball, and quickly recognized a chance to bully the Dolphins (a thing you shouldn’t do in real life) inside.
  • The defense was excellent. Travis Steele wanted a top 25 unit this year. One game into it, the Musketeers are 39th with a defensive efficiency of 91.9. Keep that up for an entire year and you are looking at a top 15 defense. Leighton Schrand was tenacious in his time on the court, as was Bryce Moore, who looks like he could be a lock down defender. Paul Scruggs had three steals and Jacksonville, even with Xavier yawning through the last eight minutes, only averaged .78 points per possession.