The new Big East - the 10-team true round-robin that we've been waiting for - kicks off on New Year's Day with a marathon that features every Big East team on television. The marathon starts off with St. John's facing Xavier at noon in the Cintas Center, the Xavier Musketeers' intimidating home venue.
Xavier is good, but much like St. John's, didn't nail down the signature non-conference win before the start of Big East play. The conference is going to be a rough ride, and with the lack of marquee wins, teams know they need to show well in the months leading up to the Big East Tournament.
We asked Joel from SB Nation's Banners on the Parkway for some answers about Xavier. They gave us tempo-free-friendly responses (which we love) about the newcomers (including the "Stain Train"), their defensive style, their proclivities on the offensive glass, and the team's resilience.
Q// After last season's "rebuilding" year, how is Xavier's transition? Over the summer, you mentioned a number of "ifs"/ concerns - how have those played out?
Banners on the Parkway: It has been hit and miss, but the hits have been much bigger than the misses. Myles Davis has been the defense-stretching weapon Xavier needed. Dee Davis has still been a little turnover-prone, but he is steady as a rock in the half court and prone to splitting open defenses from time to time.
Jalen Reynolds has shown flashes of incredible athleticism, but he is too foul-prone to be a consistent threat right now. Justin Martin has been vexingly inconsistent, and Isaiah Philmore's effort has been great but results have been patchy. Matt Stainbrook has been an absolute revelation and Farr's progress from last year to this one has been ridiculous. Brandon Randolph has been good(ish), Kamall Richards has been anonymous.
All that to say that the Muskies have been playing about as well as could be reasonably hoped to this point, other than that little glitch in the Bahamas. With another top recruiting class signed, the rebuilding has been mercifully brief.
Q// What's been a defining feature of this Xavier team?
BotP: Resilience, both in-game and over the course of the season. After the disaster in the Bahamas, Xavier was on the ropes against a bad Bowling Green team before gutting it out in OT. After another poor showing against Evansville, it all clicked into place against Cinci. They showed the same toughness against Alabama, down 12 on the road against a top defense, they put together a 51-point second half to overturn a win probability of about 6% to get out of there with the W.
It has gotten dark a couple of times for Xavier this year, but this team is never dead and buried until it's truly done and dusted.
Q// Why should Xavier be confident going into tomorrow's game?
BotP: Because this team is deep and versatile and has shown it can put together extended stretches of serious defensive performance. Semaj Christon and Stainbrook give the team a slasher and a post worker, and both of them like to distribute.
Myles Davis and James Farr can really shoot the ball, and Dee can convert if left open. Turnovers and free-throw shooting are still concerns for the offense, but a team that defends like this and throws that many bodies at the boards is going to be in a lot of games.
Q// What kind of defense does X run?
BotP: Coach Mack is a mostly man-to-man guy, but he has branched out a little bit this year. Xavier has shown full and 3/4 court zone traps and has fallen back into a kind of loose 2-3 with the guards chasing hard from time to time. Mostly, though, X plays straight up man with packline principles, having the on-ball defender pressure hard and the other four fall off and offer help on a drive. Also, we hedge over ball screens all the time. The opinion of the fan base is split regarding the wisdom of this practice.
Q// How's the transition game on offense and defense?
BotP: Not bad. In Christon, Dee Davis, and Brandon Randolph, X has three guards who are willing and able to push the ball up the floor after makes and misses. Dee sometimes gets a little ahead of himself in transition, but the guards go and the bigs are diligent in running with them. They also track back well; against a Wake team that really likes to get the ball out and run, Xavier allowed only 10 fast-break points.
It should be noted that a large part of the Muskies' transition defense is played on the offensive glass; it's tough for the other team to break while you're putting in a stickback.
Q// How big of a factor is the three-pointer to the Musketeers?
BotP: Just enough. Xavier is helped out by the three (37.7% from deep) without being reliant upon it, which is a nice luxury to have. Barely over a quarter of the team's shot attempts come from behind the arc, and the offense is built on post looks and high ball screens more than hunting jumpers.
When Xavier does decide to pull, it's usually off of a kick out and gives the shooter that extra bit of space as a collapsed defense recovers. Of the team's 72 made threes, 65 have come off of assists.
Q// What's the team's biggest issue into conference play?
BotP: It's a twofold tale of bad free throw shooting and turnovers.
Xavier is a talented team, but they're also young and occasionally shoot themselves in foot. When they lose, it's because they leave too many points on the floor in the form of missed FT and profligacy with the basketball. Control those two things and this team can play with anyone in the league.