Less than two months stand between the start of the 2022-23 college basketball season, and in many ways, the setting surrounding Xavier University’s men’s basketball team is quite different than this time last year.
A new head coach, who’s actually Xavier’s old head coach. New assistant coaches. A new strength coach. Some players graduated, many returned, and three new scholarship players joined the roster of a team that won the National Invitation Tournament six months ago.
Here are 10 thoughts on the upcoming season.
The return of Sean Miller
When Xavier parted ways with Travis Steele in March, Miller quickly emerged as the top candidate, and it only took a few days for both sides to agree to a deal.
With Jay Wright’s retirement at Villanova, Xavier now has one of the most experienced and winningest coaches in the Big East Conference, a conference Miller played in at Pittsburgh.
Miller’s 422 career wins rank third among active coaches in the Big East, behind Creighton’s Greg McDermott (556) and Butler’s Thad Matta (439).
Miller’s a proven coach who can make the NCAA Tournament and compete for conference championships. He’s more than capable of getting Xavier back to where he expects to be.
The question this season is what Miller can do with a roster that was nearly all inherited from the previous coaching staff.
The potential of Colby Jones
There may have been some lapses in production over the last two seasons. Maybe you can chalk that up to growing pains, the system, or maybe the surrounding pieces weren’t always complementary.
One thing’s certain: If Colby Jones can put together an entire season the way he finished last year, winning MVP of the National Invitation Tournament, then Xavier could have a bonafide star in the Big East and beyond.
Over the final 11 games last season, Jones averaged 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
He spoke to The Enquirer over the summer about the areas where he wants to improve. Last season, Jones shot 29% from 3-point range and 68% from the foul line.
Jones is a solid defender, a great rebounder, and a playmaker. He can handle the ball and make the right plays ‒ he’s proven that. If he can be productive beyond the arc and more efficient at the foul line, then he’ll check all the boxes.
point guard play
The point guard position hasn’t been very dependent over the last four seasons. For a multitude of reasons, it’s been a position that’s lacked consistency and production.
Xavier’s hoping UTEP transfer Souley Boum can change that. Boom’s greatest attributes are his ability to score and get to the free-throw line. Last season at UTEP, Boum played 37 minutes a game and averaged 19.9 points, which ranked 23rd nationally in all of Division I and his 172 made free throws were the eighth-most in the country.
‘I felt like I was needed here’:From Oakland’s Mosswood Park to Xavier, meet Souley Boum
If he can take care of the ball and facilitate for his teammates, then he could stabilize that position and allow Xavier’s offense to run a lot more efficiently.
Boom will have some help. Freshman point guard Desmond Claude has played well over the summer, according to coaches and his teammates. Claude’s a true point guard. He’ll have an opportunity to make an impact as a freshman.
Over the last four seasons, Xavier’s perimeter shooting has been a glaring problem. Out of the 353 Division I teams in the country, Xavier’s 3-point shooting percentage has ranked in the bottom half nationally over the last four years (236, 282, 229, and 250, respectively).
That’s a product of shot selection, who’s attempting 3-pointers, and how often. Xavier can’t expect to reach his potential shooting that poorly from the perimeter again.
Adam Kunkel will probably get the most perimeter looks this season. He took 162 3-pointers last season and made 33% of those.
It won’t fall only on Kunkel’s shoulders. Boom shot 37% from 3-point last season. Jack Nunge’s a capable shooter from beyond the arc. Zach Freemantle and Jerome Hunter need to be more selective from deep. Freemantle and Hunter were a combined 26-for-112 from 3 last season.
Freshman Kam Craft’s greatest asset coming out of high school was his shooting. It may take some time for that to translate to the college level, but if it does, he could really help Xavier’s outside arsenal.
Another option could be senior KyKy Tandy, who’s finally healthy after needing season-ending surgery last year. By many accounts in the program, Tandy has transformed his body and is in great shape. If he can find his way onto the floor, he’s one of the best shooters on the roster.
The schedule and a looming suspension
A quick run through the non-conference portion of Xavier’s schedule, and it’s pretty obvious that it was assembled for a team that expects to be in the NCAA Tournament next March.
The Musketeers play Indiana and West Virginia at home, Cincinnati on the road, and head to Portland over Thanksgiving for the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament, where they open with Florida, then either Duke or Oregon State, and the third game could be against Gonzaga, Purdue, West Virginia, or Portland State.
It’s a difficult schedule and it could be more difficult depending on the potential suspension looming for Miller, stemming from an NCAA offenses case from his time at Arizona.
It’s still unclear when that decision will be handed down. It could come in October before the start of the season, which would be beneficial. Xavier would know how long Miller’s out and what games he’ll miss. It could also be decided later, possibly after the season’s already started.
Whenever the decision drops, the expectation is that associate head coach Adam Cohen will serve as Xavier’s head coach for whatever games Miller may miss.
Xavier’s experience should be a strength. It’s a safe assumption that Xavier’s starting lineup will be Boum, Kunkel, Jones, Freemantle and Nunge.
Those five players have played in a combined 460 college basketball games over their careers with 268 starts between them.
That should mix nicely with a new head coach who has 17 years of experience and has won 73% of his games, but it could take some time.
Behind the starters, Xavier’s not without depth either. Those competitions are ongoing and it will be telling to see who earns minutes off the bench.
Nunge played a lot last season, a career-high 26.5 minutes per game for a guy who was coming off his second major knee injury and didn’t start practicing until a few weeks before the season started. When Xavier got deep into conference play, there was a stretch last season where Nunge looked a little burnt out.
With an entire offseason of training under his belt, the hope is that he’s better prepared for this season. Even still, it’s going to be important to keep Nunge as fresh as possible throughout the season.
He was arguably Xavier’s best player last season, leading the team in scoring (13.4), rebounding (7.4) and blocked shots (50).
Behind Nunge, Xavier really has three other true big men in Freemantle, Dieonte Miles and Cesare Edwards.
Freemantle’s going to be on the floor. He can score and if he commits to rebounding, he can help Xavier at both ends of the floor.
But that third big man is going to be important.
Miles and Edwards both played sparingly last season. Miles played at the beginning of the season when Freemantle was out with a foot injury. Edwards played more at the end of last season. They offer different styles. Miles is more mobile and impacts the game more at the defensive end. Edwards plays with toughness and is more offensive-minded. Those contrasting styles could allow both to play, but it remains an intriguing battle for who will be the first big man off the bench.
The scheme makes the team
Miller knows how he wants to play. Over last season when he wasn’t coaching, Miller spoke on podcasts about how he was able to watch a lot of basketball, study analytics, and put a lot of thought into how he wants to play when he returns to coaching.
He’s said he wants to play faster than any of his previous teams have played. He spoke about how he likes the look of having two ball-handling guards on the floor together to help accommodate that tempo. He wants Xavier to be a man-to-man defensive team with the ability to jump into a zone on occasion.
One of the most interesting to follow this season will be how different Xavier looks compared to last season. It’s largely the same players with a couple of exceptions, but how the scheme changes and the way everything works could be very different.
Xavier can’t rely on his starting lineup all the time. Someone off the bench, preferably two or three players, needs to fill important roles and they need to be reliable in doing so.
The two most obvious answers are the freshmen ‒ Claude and Craft.
Craft offers perimeter firepower to a team that’s struggled with shooting recently. Claude offers consistency and reliability in the backcourt, another area that’s been deficient.
For freshmen, it’s a process. Learning the defense, the terminology, and understanding how to make the right decisions. If both of them can traverse that process successfully, there’s no reason why they both can’t impact the team.
A couple of other options could be Miles and Tandy. Both were members of Xavier’s 2019 recruiting class and neither have really found their footing in the rotation. Early indications are that both have had solid summers. But will that carry over into the season?
Toughness to the finish line
No one needs to be reminded how the last few seasons have ended at Xavier.
February and March have been disappointing months on Victory Parkway. Teams started strong only to fade down the stretch. It’s the most pressing reason why the Musketeers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in four years.
That’s why Miller is back ‒ to cultivate the toughness required to finish the season stronger and better than when it started.