30 teams in 30 days 2022-2023 college hoops preview: No. 26 Xavier Musketeers
As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just about one month from now - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by Torres Online. college basketball writer Zac Krull.
Earlier this week we started with the always intriguing Memphis Tigers, then hit the Illinois Fighting Illini and Wyoming Cowboys.
With Big East Media Day today, we turn our attention to the Xavier Musketeers. A talented roster now has a new head coach, as Sean Miller returns to Cincinnati, trying to return this program to former glory after missing the NCAA Tournament each of the last four years.
How it Went Down in 2021-2022
Xavier has been one of the most underrated and consistent programs in all of college basketball, over the course of the last 35 years. The Musketeers program has made the NCAA Tournament 16 times since 2000 and have a rich history and tradition of winning basketball.
Unfortunately for Xavier fans, that has come to a screeching halt over the course of the last four seasons.
In 2018, former Musketeers head coach Chris Mack was on his way to becoming one of the better young coaches in the sport. Following an Elite Eight run in 2017, the Musketeers earned a No. 1 seed and Big East title in 2018. Following that season Mack left for Louisville, but it seemed as though the Xavier program was in a terrific place with a ton of talent back from that special 2018 team. Associate Head Coach Travis Steele was announced as the newest head coach and there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t be able to succeed. Each of Steele’s predecessors in Mack, along with Sean Miller and Thad Matta were able to lead Xavier to the NCAA Tournament in their first years on the job which ultimately turned into even more success.
Unfortunately, Steele could not follow those predecessors. Xavier entered Steele’s first season in 2019 as a fringe Top 25 team, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament after a very disappointing 19-16 season. A year later, Xavier started Steele’s second season in 2020 with a 11-2 record and got as high as No. 19 in the AP Poll that year. But it all fell apart down the stretch with an 8-11 Big East record. Just a day before Covid ended the 2020 NCAA Tournament before it began, Xavier's season ended with a stunning Big East Tournament loss to DePaul. Another late season collapse saw the Musketeers finish 2-6 down the stretch in 2021.
And then, there was 2022.
For a fourth straight season, Xavier got off to a hot start, which included wins over a ranked Ohio State team, crushing their archrival Cincinnati in the Cross-Town Shootout, and going on the road to Oklahoma State and winning. That however, was followed by another collapse with the Musketeers losing seven of its final nine games to end the regular season.
After another loss in the opening round of the Big East Tournament, Steele was on the ropes. And in a bizarre move, Xavier elected to fire him after an opening round NIT win. Still, Athletic Director Greg Christopher read the pulse of the fan base and rightfully realized a change needed to be made.
With interim Head Coach Jonas Hayes taking over, Xavier looked like the team many people were expecting to see throughout the season in the NIT. They ripped through the NIT, taking home the title in Madison Square Garden, all as their new coach - who is of course their old coach - Sean Miller looked on.
Miller was officially named Xavier's head coach in mid-March, returning to a school that he led to four NCAA Tournament's in five years as a head coach, including an Elite Eight in 2008.
What You Need to Know About 2022-2023
Key Returnees: Colby Jones, Jack Nunge, Zach Freemantle, Adam Kunkel, KyKy Tandy, Jerome Hunter, Cesare Edwards, Dieonte Miles
Key Losses: Paul Scruggs, Nate Johnson, Dwon Odom,
Key Transfers: Souley Boum (UTEP), Hercy Miller (Tennessee State) Key Recruits: Kam Craft, Desmond Claude
National Title Odds via Betfred Sportsbook: +10000
The Musketeers will return four of their top seven leading scorers from a season ago and losing some production from last year’s team may not be the worst thing in the world considering there was some trouble figuring out a consistent rotation with so many solid players. Another factor that should help out that issue, is an upgrade in the coaching department as Xavier brought back Sean Miller to take the head seat.
After working for Thad Matta as an Assistant Coach for Xavier, Miller took over the Musketeers program in 2004 and had a great five-year run. After missing the NCAA Tournament his first year, Miller would lead Xavier to four consecutive tournament berths, including - as mentioned above - an Elite Eight appearance in 2008. After leaving for Arizona, he ended up making three Elite Eights and an additional two Sweet 16's, before being let go in the midst of an NCAA investigation in the spring of 2021.
Despite it, you can't argue Miller's credentials, as he has been consistently excellent at two different schools. In a wild stat, he actually has the third highest win percentage all-time in Pac-12 history, behind only John Wooden and Lute Olson. Not bad.
Now he heads to Xavier, where ironically, he'll have the opportunity to do the exact same thing that his replacement at Arizona Tommy Lloyd did a season ago: Win big, with a stacked roster left over by the previous coach.
Of all the key players returning, the one that stands out the most is Colby Jones. Jones will be entering his third season in the Xavier program, and the junior's numbers have improved each year since he arrived in Cincinnati. Jones was named the NIT’s Most Outstanding Player a season ago, having some monster games, including scoring a career high 21 points in the Musketeers title game victory over Texas A&M. Jones also scored in double digits in each of Xavier’s last 11 games of the season. With all the talent, Miller could be exactly what Jones was missing in order to take his game to the next step, and Jones could be this year’s version of Mathurin or Terry with the possibility of the NBA in his future.
With key contributors like Jack Nunge (the team's leading scorer and rebounder), Zach Freemantle and Adam Kunkel back as well, Miller will have plenty of talent to work with, and he plugged additional holes through the portal. Most notably is UTEP transfer Souley Boum, who should make an immediate impact right away. Boum averaged 19.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game at UTEP last season, and was their best player. While moving up from Conference USA to the Big East won’t be an easy transition, Boum is in a good position to succeed, considering Xavier isn’t going to be relying on him to put up the exact same numbers he was producing at UTEP. Instead, he will likely come off the bench and provide instant offense, which is very valuable for any team that is trying to win.
This team had their moments under Travis Steele, now it's time for them to put it all together and return to the NCAA Tournament.
After starting off the season against mid-major competition, we will see Xavier in some big games during the non-conference slate.
First, Xavier will host Indiana at the Cintas Center on November 18th as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games. This will be a big test for Xavier, considering Indiana has been labeled as the consensus preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. Xavier gave arguably their best performance of last season in the Gavitt Games a season ago against Ohio State, Ohio State and a repeat of that performance would do wonders for the team's confidence so early in the season.
In addition, Xavier will head to the premier tournament of Feast Week, which is the PK85 in Portland, Oregon. The Musketeers will be in the "Legacy Bracket," featuring teams like Duke, Gonzaga, Florida and Purdue. They open with an intriguing match-up against the Gators, with their own first-year head coach Todd Golden.
Xavier will also host West Virginia and travel to their archrivals Cincinnati for the Crosstown Shootout, before Big East Conference play begins. With three games in the PK 85, and three other games against quality competition, Xavier will be challenged during their non-conference slate and will have a chance to make a statement early.
The Big East slate speaks for itself, with the Musketeers facing a number of teams who should start the year in the Top 25, including Villanova, UConn and Creighton.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
Despite not making the NCAA Tournament since Chris Mack’s final season in 2018, Xavier should be expected to be one of the better teams in the Big East and at least a fringe Top 25 team nationally, if not better. There isn’t a team in the Big East outside of Creighton (considered the consensus favorite) who returns more talent than Xavier.
It's also a good sign that so many key players elected to return to play for Miller.
In today’s era of the transfer portal and new rules, there is no incentive for a player to return to his original school when a coaching change is made. Any player now has the opportunity to play right away if they want to go to a new school, and still, guys like Colby Jones, Jack Nunge, Zach Freemantle and Adam Kunkel all decided to return to Xavier and play for Miller. It should help that Miller has proven he knows how to win at Xavier along with their culture, and the players must have realized that with their decisions to return to school.
Prior to being hired by Xavier in March, Miller joined our very own Aaron Torres’ in February and mentioned that “There aren't 20 places in America that support their basketball program better than Xavier University.” This statement is indeed a fact, as Xavier had made the NCAA Tournament in 13 of the previous 20 NCAA Tournaments, prior to the start of the Travis Steele era in 2018.
Xavier Basketball has a rich tradition in winning and making it to the NCAA Tournament, which has somehow been halted the last few years. No one knows that more than Miller, and there isn’t anyone better suited for the job than he is, considering he has already won there in a big way.
The Big East last season sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament, and there is a good chance they could send even more this season.
It'd be shocking if Xavier wasn't one of them.
No. 30 - Memphis Tigers
No. 29 - Illinois Fighting Illini
No. 28 - Wyoming Cowboys
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