Xavier has spent the last decade quietly becoming one of college basketball's most consistent postseason contenders. The Musketeers have reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament five times over the last nine years, an accomplishment that puts them on par with Kentucky and Arizona. Postseason achievement has rarely correlated with preseason respect, though. Xavier has started the new season ranked in the polls only once in 13 years.
That will change this season. Xavier returns the biggest pieces from a 28-6 team that ranked in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Xavier has star power, it has shooting, and it has a team that will again compete on both ends of the floor.
Trevon Bluiett should be one of the best players in the country as a junior. The 6'6 wing was named a Third Team All-American by USA Today last season after making major strides as a scorer (15.1 points per game), shooter (39.8 percent from three) and perimeter defender. He enters this season as a favorite to win Big East Player of the Year alongside Villanova's Josh Hart.
If Bluiett is the leader, point guard Edmond Sumner is the player with the ability to take Xavier to the next level. Sumner was one of last season's breakout players as a redshirt freshman, thanks to a rare combination of speed and height (6'6) for a point guard. With a big year, he could be a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
The front court is less settled. James Farr and Jalen Reynolds are gone, as are the 20 points and 14 rebounds per game they combined to average last year. Junior center Sean O'Mara will be expected to step up, as will Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston. Sophomore Kaiser Gates and freshman Tyrique Jones, the No. 94 recruit in the class of 2016, round out the front court rotation.
The status of senior guard Myles Davis also hangs over the team. Davis was suspended indefinitely by coach Chris Mack last month after being charged with two misdemeanors following a dispute with his ex-girlfriend. If he’s reinstated this season, Davis will give Xavier another shooter (38 percent on threes) and ball handler.
For all of its postseason success, Xavier has still never made the Final Four. Last year’s team had a great shot to do it before their season was cruelly ended by a Bronson Koenig dagger. Whether everything comes together this season, one thing is for sure: Xavier is no underdog anymore.
It’s entirely possible that Xavier could have two of the 25 best players in college basketball this season. That’s how good Bluiett and Sumner can be.
Bluiett was always destined for big things as the No. 38 recruit in the class of 2014. Last season, he was one of only 10 players to average at least 15 points, six rebounds, and two assists, while shooting 39 percent on threes. Pancake Thomas — who transferred from Hartford to Western Kentucky — is the only other player from that group to return college basketball this season.
Sumner took a more prolonged path to the spotlight. The No. 78 recruit in 2014 per ESPN, he was forced to redshirt his first year at Xavier because of patellar tendinitis, also known as "jumper’s knee." He used the year off to hit the weight room and grew into Xavier’s best creator as the season went on.
Sumner’s physical tools are the reason he’s pegged at No. 23 overall in the latest mock draft from DraftExpress, but his production isn’t star level yet. He shot just 39 percent from the field last year, only made 30 percent of his three-pointers, and badly needs to cut down on a gaudy 19 percent turnover rate. Still, the talent is there. There’s reason to believe everything clicks this season.
Jalen Reynolds and James Farr quietly formed an effective front court last season. Both were grown men at 23 years old and about 6’10, 240 pounds. They were the reason Xavier was a great rebounding team last year, finishing No. 28 in offensive rebound percentage and No. 36 in defensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom.
That’s a lot for O’Mara, Gaston, Gates, and Jones to live up to. O’Mara showed flashes of solid scoring ability last season — his 60.9 true shooting percentage led the team — but his defense and rebounding are question marks. Gastin should be a major help on the glass after finishing No. 29 in offensive rebound rate and No. 58 in defensive rebound rate for Norfolk State in 2014-15. Xavier will hope that translates from the MEAC to the Big East for the 6’9, 240-pounder.
Gates and Jones bring interesting skill sets, as well. Gates is an excellent athlete with nice touch from mid-range who needs to continue adding strength. Jones is a throwback power forward, who should hit the glass and bring physicality inside.
The Musketeers were able to climb into the top five of the polls last season for the first time in program history. The perimeter looks promising, especially if Davis is reinstated. If the front court holds up its end of the bargain, another trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament wouldn’t surprise anyone.