The Xavier Musketeers enter this season as one of the elite "mid-major" programs in the country. Actually, they have become a major program competing in a non-power conference. Xavier has captured five straight Atlantic-10 titles and won at least 24 games in each of those seasons. That level of success should continue this season with three starters returning and the addition of several key newcomers.
A huge reason the Musketeers are receiving such high preseason praise is due to the return of their starting backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons. The reigning Atlantic-10 Player of the Year, Holloway is a stat stuffer, having averaged nearly 20 points, five assists, and five rebounds per game. He was also named to the Atlantic-10 All-Defensive Team and put a huge smile on head coach Chris Mack's face when he decided to return for his senior season.
Lyons is an undersized off guard who is also capable of running the point when needed. The 6-foot-1 junior is a volume shooter but gives Xavier one of the best backcourts in the country. The return of Brad Redford will also add a major boost off the bench. He missed all of last season due to knee injury but gives the Musketeers a sorely needed sharpshooter since they shot less than 33% as a team from three. Freshman Dee Davis could also factor into the backcourt equation seeing some time at the point.
Anchoring the middle will be seven-footer Kenny Frease, who continues to develop as a big man. He was suspended indefinitely in mid-October for "not fulfilling his responsibilities of a Xavier basketball player" but has been since been reinstated. Frease is a big body down low who can score with his back to the basket and also has improved his mid-range game.
The Musketeers adds some talent up front via transfer. Travis Taylor had a mammoth sophomore season at Monmouth and becomes eligible after sitting out last season. He is a high-energy player who should help offset the loss of Jamel McLean. Vanderbilt transfer Andrew Walker will be able to play right away since he got his bachelor's and is attending Xavier as a grad student. Taylor and Walker will compete with last year's key frontcourt reserve Jeff Robinson for the starting power-forward spot but all three will be key contributors. Sophomore Griffin McKenzie figures to be the odd man out of the rotation but gives Mack even more depth.
Like Taylor, Townson transfer Isaiah Philmore will take a step up in competition by playing for the Musketeers. Philmore was the sixth-leading scorer in the CAA last season but must sit out this year due to NCAA transfer rules.
It will be interesting to see Mack does with his fifth starting spot. Justin Martin didn't qualify as a freshman last year but was able to practice with Xavier. He is the ideal fit at small forward due to his length, versatility, and ability to shoot the ball. True freshman Dezmine Wells is another candidate and should contribute right away. Mack could also go with a three-guard look by inserting Redford alongside Holloway and Lyons. I am giving Martin the nod for now.
The Musketeers once again play a loaded non-conference schedule that will help prepare them for March since they will not be as tested in the slightly down Atlantic 10. Mack has the talent to lead Xavier to the Final Four for the first time in school history. It's just a matter of getting all the pieces to gel together when it matters most.
Player to Watch: Tu Holloway, PG
As awesome as the basketball player formerly known as "Terrell" was last season, he saved his worst for last, scoring just four points and turning the ball over five times in Xavier's opening round loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament. He will certainly be out for redemption this year. That redemption though, may not involve as much scoring since the Musketeers have more talent and depth than they did a year ago.
Key Non-Conference Games:
11/25 vs. Georgia
11/28 at Vanderbilt
12/3 vs. Purdue
12/7 at Butler
12/10 vs. Cincinnati
12/22 vs. Long Beach State (Diamond Head Classic)
12/23 vs. Clemson/UTEP (Diamond Head Classic)
12/25 Kansas State/Southern Illinois/Auburn/Hawaii (Diamond Head Classic)
Will the broncos realistically be able to snag Zach Cunningham like you're predicting? This is a dream scenario for me as he's my favorite true Inside Linebacker in this draft. I see him coming off almost everyone's day 2 mock draft super early besides yours. He's had tackling issues when coming from behind and doesn't have that elite speed but...will he really drop that far? Oh I've never been so excited for round 2 of the nfl draft!!! Thoughts?