Ten games into the season, the only thing that has shown it can stop Xavier is the digestive flu. When not crippled by the twirls, this roster has been dominant.
Central to that has been big man Jack Nunge. Back in April, your friend and mine Evan Miyakawa identified him as the best offensive player in the transfer market. Ten games into the season, and fresh off of an unmitigated demolition of an overmatched Cincinnati front line, Nunge has proven to be everything he was projected to be and more.
In terms of both efficiency and overall production, Nunge is making a case for being the best transfer big man in the last 20 years for Xavier. After the Crosstown Beatdown, he's averaging 13.0/7.5/0.6 on a shooting line of .558/.280/.755 and blocking 1.7 shots per game for good measure. All this is coming in just 22 minutes per game on just 1 start as Coach Steele initially eased him back to full strength.
While his raw stats are impressive, his efficiency is astronomical. His ORtg is 129.3, ahead (albeit just marginally) of the comical 128.7 that Zach Hankins posted in his lone season for the Muskies. While Hankins was an excellent defender, Nunge exactly matches his 8.3% block rate and outperforms him handily on the defensive glass. Like Hankins, Nunge is shooting a #nice 69% from inside the arc, ahead of other notable transfer bigs like Brian Thornton (64%) and Matt Stainbrook (62%). All of these guys are excellent offensive rebounders, but Nunge outpaces them all on the defensive glass.
What really has Xavier clicking isn't just the dominance of Nunge, or that he combines with starting center Dieonte Miles to form the fearsome 14-foot monster J'kieonte Nungiles. No, the real fun started when the calendar turned to December.
When November closed, Xavier was a respectable 6-1 and 39th in the KenPom. They had scuffled through a couple of buy games, needed Nate Johnson on the form of his life to escape the Preseason NIT at 1-1, and had just the home victory over OSU to really hang their collective hat on.
Then Zach Freemantle got healthy.
With the preseason first-team all conference forward in the lineup, Xavier went from ticking over to hitting full power light a switch had been flipped. During the time period from the start of the month to the moment at which I typed this sentence, Bart Torvik has Xavier playing like a top-5 team in the nation. They won two buy games by a total of 79 points, went to Oklahoma State and won, and clobbered UC by 20 in a game that was out of reach by the U8 in the first half. This team is clicking over on all cylinders.
Nunge has been such a stud that he has shone no matter who he's paired with, but he and the team have hit another gear once Freemantle began suiting up. According to Evan Miyakawa (whose website I would definitely recommend; it's free!), the most efficient two player combination for Xavier is Freemantle and Nunge. With those two on the floor, X has an adjusted efficiency margin (the difference between team offensive and defensive efficiency with those two players on the court, adjusted for opponent strength) of 71.2. They're the second-most efficient offensive combination and the fourth-most efficient defensive combination. I'll confess I don't understand all the math on EvanMiya.com, but I can tell you this is very good.
Zach Freemantle has always played better with a bully at his back, freeing him up to snarl and preen and explore the space a bit while not having to go chest-to-chest with the other teams biggest player 50 or 60 possessions a game. As a freshman, he was at his best with Tyrique Jones mean mugging anyone who tried to jam up his airspace. Last year, with an injured Jason Carter and an anonymous Brian Griffin backing his plays, his swagger suffered a bit, even if his production didn't.
This year, I think it's safe to say he has his swagger back.
The final variable in the equation has been the growth of Travis Steele as a head coach. He has suffered through some growing pains in the early portion of his career, but the people calling to raise the temperature of his seat have proven conspicuous by their absence recently. He pieced apart Chris Holtmann at home to beat OSU, held his cards until the second half on the road to beat another OSU, and had Wes Miller falling on his sword in the post-Shootout presser.
The pieces are in place and Steele has them performing well. After a bit of wandering, Xavier is back to what they're supposed to be.