Xavier basketball was rolling to a nerve-wracking end to the season, then a global pandemic hit the brakes so hard I went right into the windshield. We’ve shaken ourselves off a bit here and will continue, somewhat belatedly, with our breakdown of one of the weirdest Xavier seasons on record.
Basketball, like most sports, is a series of complicated moves around a fairly simple core. On the hardwood, all it really boils down to is running around a bunch, then trying to get an easy shot for your team while not letting the other team get an easy one in return. Couldn’t be less complicated.
For a freshman showing up to play college ball for the first time, the physical demands of the game can be overwhelming. This is true of every new player, but at least a guard will have the opportunity to make a mark if he can cash out occasionally from 21 feet or so. For a big man, the challenge is more difficult: match up with someone 2-4 years your senior who has spent those years in a college strength and conditioning program, and keep him from physically bullying you to wherever he wants to go on the floor.
That’s the hurdle that Zach Freemantle faced when he showed up on campus last fall. He cleared it with aplomb.
He started the season in Xavier’s four home games with a steady level of production, averaging basically 8 and 4 while shooting 58% from the floor. Perhaps as importantly, he was 9-12 from the line during those games, foreshadowing his steadiness from the stripe for a team that would sorely lack consistency in that department.
The moment it really struck - at least for me - that Big Frosty was for real, though, came in Charleston, SC. Xavier was taking on scrappy mid-major UConn in the Charleston Classic, and the game was back and forth the whole way. With every bucket swinging momentum late in the second half, UConn contrived to get their big man Josh Carlton open on the right block for what should have been an easy basket. Freemantle came out of nowhere, beat Carlton’s shot off the glass from behind, then outran everyone in transition to catch a long outlet from Naji for a layup.
Freemantle ended that game with the fairly unimpressive line of 4/5/1, but he threw in 2 steals and 5 blocks in a game Xavier ended up winning by 1 in double OT. Freemantle’s box plus/minus (if you’re into that sort of thing) was 10.5, second only to Paul Scruggs’s 10.9, and Scruggs had to drop 19 to accomplish that.
The big man just continued to grow from there. After going into double figures three times in non-conference play, he did it eight times against Big East opponents. He had some downs (four times he scored one or zero buckets in conference games), but those were well overshadowed by his ups, which included averaging 9 and 5 from the middle of January through the end of the year and dropping 18 in the final game X played.
All the indicators for Freemantle’s trajectory are positive. His ORtg took a slight hit when measured against just KenPom tier A opponents or in just conference games, but that’s mostly down to a slight uptick in turnovers in those games and a couple of rough shooting outings. His rebounding at both ends held steady no matter the quality of the opponent or the setting of the game, and his defensive numbers were similarly excellent. He had a bit of trouble with fouling but nothing compared to the usual rough spots a big man hits coming into college ball.
He flashed an advanced array of moves from the post and enough range (12-34, 35.3% from deep) to make teams respect him on the arc. His 78.9% mark from the free throw line gives hope that his stroke is legit and not an artifact of a small sample size. Most importantly, he showed the toughness of a junkyard dog from the word go. No challenge was enough to cow him, even when he wasn’t able to produce the results he wanted to. Xavier’s program was built on skill, but there’s no doubt that the foundation was laid with toughness and a certain fighting attitude. Freemantle has all of those things in spades; the sky is the limit for this kid.