A year ago, Xavier won the Big East regular season championship and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That team featured four seniors, including star wing Trevon Bluiett. But all four of those seniors, along with junior forward Kaiser Gates and head coach Chris Mack, departed over the summer.
It was a lot of change for a program where continuity has been a big part of its success over the years. After Mack left for Louisville, Xavier promoted his top assistant, Travis Steele, to head coach. It was a move that was consistent with how the Xavier program has been run over the past few decades; Skip Prosser, Sean Miller, and Chris Mack all had spent time as an Xavier assistant before being being put in charge of the program.
But the roster still looked to be of the sort that was going to lead to a down year; it is hard to lose so much of your rotation at once and not end up also losing a fair number of games. The Muskies did lose a fair amount, going 8-5 during the non-conference season before starting off conference play with a 3-8 record.
But things started to turn around a little more than a month ago when Xavier won in overtime over Creighton. Coach Steele’s team finished the season strong, winning six of its last seven games before winning another in the Big East tournament.
So what should you know about Xavier?
Its best player is versatile 6’7 sophomore Naji Marshall — you can quickly identify him as the guy who is not wearing a headband. Marshall can score the ball and is one of the team’s best playmakers and rebounders. He can pretty much guard every position on the floor when needed. He has not shot the ball very well from the perimeter this year, but he has a good stroke and Texas should probably take it seriously. He will play some at the four, but when Xavier goes big (which it has been doing a lot during its late season run) he plays on the perimeter.
Both of Xavier’s two starting big men are good. Early in the season, Steele was mostly playing one of them at the time, but midway through the year shifted to playing them together. 6’7 junior Tyrique Jones is a ball of pure energy and is very strong. He is one of the very best offensive rebounders in the country, and Xavier will also find him inside on post ups and sets designed to allow him to seal deep in the paint and quickly get the ball after reversal.
6’11 Grad transfer Zach Hankins was the D-II Player of the Year last year before transferring to Xavier. He generally rolls with a hairstyle that can best be described as questionable, but is big, physical, and can score the ball. Keeping Hankins and Jones off the glass needs to be a high priority for Texas; some of Xavier’s best offense happens after the first shot goes up and is missed.
Also rotating through the front court will be 6’10 grad transfer Ryan Welage, who doesn’t bang inside like Jones and Hankins, but instead stretches the floor from long range. Welage has hit 43 percent of his 141 threes this season.
On the perimeter, Xavier has a pair of good guards. 6’3 sophomore point guard Paul Scruggs was highly recruited out of Indianapolis, and after an up and down freshman season has played well in his second season. He is quick going to the basket and is one of Xavier’s best perimeter shooters. His running mate is junior Quentin Goodin, a player who has been up and down as a perimeter shooter over his career, but is pretty good as a secondary ball handler and creator.
Like any team in the NIT, Xavier has some holes in its game. Outside of Scruggs and Welage, no one has shot the ball well from the perimeter this year. And the Muskies have been inconsistent defensively this season.
The Texas big men will have a fight on their hands, and Texas’ perimeter defenders will have to deal with the long, skilled, and athletic Marshall. Win out on enough of this, and Texas can once again advance.
The game tips in Austin on Sunday afternoon at 3PM CDT, and airs on ESPN.