At the beginning of February, Memphis was all at sea. They were 11-8 and had accumulated an unimpressive -1.9 WAB. They had been a consensus top 25 team in the preseason and many sources had them in the top 10. Three months on, they were dead in the water and the only uncertainty was whether or not the school would wait until the end of the season to fire head coach Penny Hardaway.
Then salvation came from an unlikely place: Emoni Bates got injured. For the uninitiated, Bates was a five-star recruit that slotted somewhere inside the top ten in the class. He was expected to be an immediate star, spend one season lighting up the AAC for Memphis, and then depart to get paid (over the table). Instead, he averages 10 PPG on an ORtg of 90 for a team that went nowhere.
Since he went down, Memphis has taken off. They've compiled something like 2.8 WAB, gone from looking like a 2 seed in the NIT to playing like a top ten team, waxed Houston twice, and gone 8-1 with him on the bench. They're finishing their second demolition of Houston as I type this; their at-large bid is all but secured.
All that to say that there is current and ongoing precedent for a team looking better with a player who should be a star instead being a spectator. That brings us to Xavier's current issues.
Zach Freemantle was supposed to be a stud for this team. He averages 16 and 9 last season with an ORtg of 105 and good rebounding numbers on both ends. He was a menace on the post and just capable enough from the mid-range and deep to force opponents to respect him. And they did, as evidenced by his appearance on the preseason all-conference team.
It hasn't turned out that way at all. Freemantle has taken an indisputable step back on the offensive end. His ORtg is down below 100, owing mostly to a lower two-point percentage and a 20% mark from deep. He's less effective on the glass, both by rate and by averages.
Those are issues that can be played through to allow him to find a rhythm. What can't be is his performance on the defensive end. According to the numbers at evanmiya.com - and the eye test of everyone who knows our Twitter handle, judging by our mentions - he has been the team's worst defender by a wide margin. His DBPR (don't ask me about the math on that one) is less than half that of Adam Kunkel, the next closest player. Measured by on-off defensive splits on the same website, the team is more than 12 points worse defensively per 100 possessions with Freemantle in the game.
Anyone who watched any of Xavier's last three games has seen opposing teams identify and mercilessly target Freemantle as a weakness on defense. Trey Jackson had him for lunch against Seton Hall. St. John's ran sets to isolate Aaron Wheeler and Tareq Coburn on him. Even Georgetown started the game by unleashing Collin Holloway's inner Tre Campbell before the first media timeout. It was only when Steele shuffled the deck to get Freemantle assigned to something he could guard - in this case, a seat on the bench - that Xavier took off.
This has to be killing Zach. He's an overtly competitive dude, and he's been playing basketball long enough to know what's going on. With the season down to single-elimination competitions, he's in danger of being relegated to the sidelines because he can't defend.
Travis Steele doesn't have the luxury of taking Freemantle's mental state into consideration. His job is to win games, and he has to either figure out a way to do that with Freemantle in or position Freemantle firmly on the bench.
For all that Memphis has taken off without Bates in the lineup, it's worth remembering that Penny Hardaway didn't have the sand to make that decision himself. If Bates were still healthy, it's not clear at all that Memphis would be in position to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Travis Steele isn't going to have the decision made for him unless something unlikely happens. The clock is ticking for him to figure it out on his own.