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Is Nate Johnson the key to Xavier’s season?

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Xavier
A full Cintas is going to love this guy
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Rather than a full on preview for each player on the roster this year we will be attempting to focus on one question that will determine how the player might fit on the team. The questions aren’t designed to carry either a positive or negative connotation, just really suss out how the roster is built. We’ll start with the freshman and build on to the players everyone knows. We know and you know the caveats that Covid brings, so this will be the only mention of it.

When Nate Johnson was healthy, Xavier was hard to beat. For a long stretch of when Nate Johnson was healthy, Xavier was impossible to beat. Nate Johnson did not stay healthy all season. That is a very reductionist way of looking at Xavier’s basketball season, but it’s not entirely wrong.

Nate Johnson suffered some sort of leg injury in late January. At that point in time Xavier was 11-2, Johnson was the best three point shooter in the nation, and the Musketeers were 46th in the KenPom rankings. Nate had shredded Oklahoma and Marquette from deep, punched it on UC in the Shootout, and was always handling Xavier’s toughest guard assignment on defense.

Three games later, Johnson’s season was done. He made two of his last 17 attempts from behind the arc (and still ended up shooting 45.2% from three for the season) and looked a lot like a guy who didn’t trust his legs anymore. Xavier lost six of their last eight games and finished short of the tournament. Nate missed five of those games completely and was greatly hampered in a sixth. Without their best defender and best outside threat, the Musketeers collapsed.

The signs of Johnson’s injury were visible throughout the team. Zach Freemantle’s workload increased significantly and in two games (Georgetown and Marquette) he struggled. Paul Scruggs posted an offensive efficiency below 100 five times in the eight games when his backcourt mate wasn’t right. In the the 13 games before that, he had dipped below 100 just three times. Jason Carter, also battling his own injury, fell off the map. Xavier’s defense slid from mediocre to 124th in the nation over that stretch. The Musketeer’s without Nate were atrocious behind the arc. Whether that is all attributable to one player getting hurt is debatable, but Johnson was the straw that stirred the offensive and defensive drinks.

That all leads to this year. Nate Johnson is back and healthy. He has, it’s reasonable to assume he hasn’t forgotten how to shoot and Xavier’s practice videos indicate that he remains a physical specimen who seems unhampered by injury. If Johnson stays healthy Xavier may be the same team they were with him, only with added pieces to replace Jason Carter, CJ Wilcher, and Bryan Griffin. The thought of #10 burying a clutch three in a BIg East game at the Cintas is one worth reveling in. If a healthy team is there to greet him, all of Xavier’s preseason hype could be justified.