By the time we hit the middle of December - a scant six weeks from where we are right now - Xavier will be staring over the precipice into Big East play. From that point, 20 games against the other 10 teams in the conference will be all that stands between our beloved Musketeers and single-elimination play, hopefully in a couple of tournaments. Before that point, though, the Muskies have to take on one final foreign power.
That team comes in the form of the Southern Jaguars. I’ve probably overstated it at least a little by calling them a power; they were not good last year. They went 4-7 in D1 non-conference games, padding their record with wins over Ecclesia and Lindsey Wilson. They hit conference play and went 11-6, a fact that becomes less impressive when you consider that they play in the worst conference in the country. Their postseason dreams died with a first-round loss to a dire Grambling State team in the conference tournament.
At the helm of this particular ship is Sean Woods. He cut his teeth at fellow SWAC team Mississippi Valley State, where he parlayed a single tournament appearance into a contract at Morehead State. After four years of treading water there, he was cut loose, though it should be noted that his successor Preston Spradlin hasn’t been a marked improvement.
Woods is 38-29 conference games at Southern and 49-65 overall. He has had four teams at Southern and all of them have turned the ball over like it’s covered in boiling oil. They’ve been solid offensive rebounders and miserable shooters. They shoot very few threes, which is good because they haven’t been good at them. Defensively, they force tons of turnovers and give up tons of free throws. Three-point defense has been a consistent strength, both in terms of rate and accuracy. Overall, their defense has been adequate but their offenses have been miserable.
Guard Jayden Saddler led the team in assists and assist rate on his way to a 11.1/3.1/4.2 game line, had excellent ball security, and was an absolute hawk on defense. He departs for last year’s tournament darling Saint Peter’s. Last year’s leading rebounder Damien Sears is also gone; he averaged 4.3/5.4/0.6 per game, was an excellent defender, and was absolutely useless on the offensive end. Other than those two, everyone who contributed meaningfully comes back.
How F Tyrone Lyons? He was last year’s leading scorer with a line of 13.7/5.0/0.8 on a very respectable .507/.422/.738 shooting line. He’s 6’7” and is an excellent defender and is the team’s best returning rebounder. Guard Brion Whitley averaged 11.7/2.3/0.6 last year and was the team’s leader in usage rate and shots percentage. He was an adequate shooter at all three levels and didn’t do much defensively that showed up on the stat sheet. His ball distribution numbers were bad.
Wing Terrell Williams comfortably led the team in repeating L’s and was second in EFG%. He averaged 9.8/3.6/1.0 per game and was an excellent scorer from inside the arc and an adequate one from beyond it. Unlike the team as a whole, he did not struggle with ball security. Guard PJ Byrd sure did. He averaged 6.7/2.1/3.2 per game but turned the ball over 2.7 per game and had a TO rate of 32.2%. He is a good defender and does well in getting to and scoring from the line, but his overall efficiency is undermined by his habit of passing to the wrong team.
Isaiah Rollins is a guard who averaged just 4.5 PPG, but it was in just 11 minutes per game. If he gets more minutes, he might break out, though he’s a super senior, so maybe there isn’t that much more upside to be attained.
Guard Bryson Etienne comes over from Texas Southern. He’s a 6’3”, 190-pound senior who averaged 8.8/2.9/1.5 in 22.1 minutes per game. He’s the definition of a volume scorer, hucking shamelessly despite a .349/.317/.804 shooting line. He’s an okayish defender, but not enough to make up for how ruthlessly he lifts despite a fairly miserable success rate.
JuCo transfers JaRonn and Jariyon Wilkens and Jalen Reynolds are all big men joining from community college programs. They’ll all fill in gaps in the frontcourt, but they’re fairly functionally interchangeable on paper. I’m sure one will distinguish himself as the season goes on, but I’m not sure it will be in a way that matters when they visit Cintas.
The good news is that a lot of key pieces come back. The less good news is that it’s from a team that wasn’t that good in the first place. They have a cohesive core and the same coach in place, but KenPom has them regressing by more than 50 spots. I don’t understand math beyond the basics, so I can’t say what the algorithm is seeing. Whatever is in play, it should be more concern to the constituent members of the Southwestern Athletic Conference than it is to Xavier. Their flying around, turnover forcing defense can be confounding, but the Muskies should be a cut above anything they can bring to Cintas.