Less than two months stand between the start of the 2022-23 college basketball season, and in many ways, the landscape surrounding the Xavier University men’s basketball team is different than it was this time last year.
A new head coach, who is actually Xavier’s former head coach. New assistant coaches. New strength coach. Some players graduated, many returned, and three new scholarship players joined the roster of a team that won the National Invitation Tournament six months ago.
Here are 10 thoughts on the upcoming season.
Return of Sean Miller
When Xavier parted ways with Travis Steele in March, Miller quickly emerged as the top candidate, and it took only a few days for the two sides to reach an agreement.
With the retirement of Jay Wright at Villanova, Xavier now has one of the more experienced and winningest coaches in the Big East Conference, a conference Miller played for in Pittsburgh.
Miller’s 422 career wins rank third among active coaches in the Big East, behind Creighton’s Greg McDermott (556) and Butler’s Thad Matta (439).
Miller is a proven coach capable of making the NCAA tournament and competing for conference championships. He has the potential to return Xavier to his expected position.
The question this season is what Miller can do with the roster inherited from the previous coaching staff.
The potential of Colby Jones
There may have been some blips in production over the past two seasons. Maybe the pains, the system or the surrounding pieces are not always complementary.
One thing’s for sure: If Colby Jones can put together a full season the way he did last year, winning the MVP of the National Invitation Tournament, then Xavier could have a superstar in the Big East and beyond.
In the final 11 games of last season, Jones averaged 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
He spoke with the Enquirer over the summer about the areas he wants to improve. Last season, Jones shot 29% from 3-point range and 68% from the foul line.
Jones is a tough defender, great rebounder and playmaker. He can control the ball and make the right plays – he’s proven that. If he’s productive beyond the arc and more efficient at the foul line, he checks all the boxes.
The point guard position hasn’t been very reliable over the past four seasons. It is a position that lacks consistency and productivity for many reasons.
Xavier’s UTEP transfer Souley Boum hopes to change that. Boom’s greatest attribute is his ability to score and get to the free throw line. Last season at UTEP, Bunn played 37 minutes per game and averaged 19.9 points, which ranked 23rd nationally among all Division I players, and his 172 free throws ranked eighth in the nation.
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If he can take care of the ball and facilitate it for his teammates, he will stabilize that position and allow Xavier’s offense to run more efficiently.
Boom will have some help. Freshman point guard Desmond Cloud has played well this winter, according to coaches and teammates. Claude is a true point guard. He will have an opportunity to make an impact as a freshman.
Over the past four seasons, Xavier’s perimeter shooting has been a glaring problem. Of the 353 Division I teams in the country, Xavier’s 3-point shooting percentage ranked in the bottom half nationally over the past four years (236, 282, 229 and 250, respectively).
That’s a product of shot selection, who is attempting 3-pointers and how often. Xavier can’t expect to have that poor shooting from the perimeter again.
Adam Kunkel will probably get a lot of perimeter looks this season. He made 162 3-pointers last season, making 33 percent.
It doesn’t just fall on Kunkel’s shoulders. Boom shot 37% from 3-point range last season. Jack Nung is a skilled shooter from beyond the arc. Zach Fremantle and Jerome Hunter should be selected further out of the depth. Fremantle and Hunter were a combined 3 26-for-112 last season.
Freshman Cam Craft’s biggest asset coming out of high school is his shooting. It may take some time for that to translate to the college level, but if it does, it could help Xavier’s outside arsenal.
Another option could be senior KyKy Tandy, who required season-ending surgery last year. By many accounts in the program, Tandy has transformed his body and is doing well. If he finds his way to the floor, he’s one of the best shooters on the roster.
The schedule and the upcoming ban
A quick run through Xavier’s non-conference schedule, and it’s clear that it’s assembled for a team that expects to be in the NCAA tournament next March.
The Musketeers will play Indiana and West Virginia at home, on the road in Cincinnati, and head to Portland for the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament Thanksgiving Tournament, where they will open at Florida, then either Duke or Oregon State, and the third game could be against Gonzaga. Purdue, West Virginia or Portland State.
It’s a tough schedule and could be even tougher depending on Miller’s possible suspension, stemming from an NCAA violation charge while at Arizona.
It is still unclear when this decision will be made. It can come in October before the start of the season, which will be useful. Xavier knows how long Miller will be out and which games he will miss. It may be decided later, perhaps after the season starts.
As the decision comes down, the expectation is that associate head coach Adam Cohen will serve as Xavier’s head coach for any games Miller may miss.
Xavier’s experience should be a strength. It’s a safe guess that Xavier’s starting line-up will be Boom, Kunkel, Jones, Fremantle and Nung.
Those five players played in 460 college basketball games in their careers and made 268 starts between them.
That should mesh well with a new head coach who has 17 years of experience and has won 73% of his games, but it may take some time.
Behind the starting linebacker, Xavier also lacks depth. Those contests are ongoing and it will be interesting to see who gets the minutes off the bench.
The older ones
Nung played a lot last season, a career-high 26.5 minutes per game for someone coming off his second serious knee injury and didn’t start practicing until a few weeks before the season started. As Xavier got deep into conference play, there was a stretch last season where Nung looked a little burned out.
With a full season of practice under his belt, the hope is that he will be better prepared for this season. Still, it will be important to keep Nung as fresh as possible during the season.
He was Xavier’s best player last season, leading the team in scoring (13.4), rebounding (7.4) and blocked shots (50).
Behind Nung, Xavier has three other true big men in Fremantle, Diont Myles and Caesar Edwards.
Fremantle will be on the floor. He can score and can help Xavier on both ends of the floor if he is committed to rebounding.
But that third big man will be important.
Miles and Edwards both played sparingly last season. Miles played early in the season while Fremantle was sidelined with a leg injury. Edwards played more late last season. They offer different styles. Miles is more mobile and impacts the game more on the defensive end. Edwards plays harder and is more aggressive. Those contrasting styles may allow them both to play, but it remains an interesting battle to see who will be the first big man off the bench.
The program makes the team
Miller knows how he wants to play. Last season when he wasn’t coaching, Miller talked on podcasts about how he watched a lot of basketball, studied analytics and thought about how he wanted to play when he returned to coaching.
It is said that he wants to play faster than his previous teams. He talked about how he likes having two ball-handling guards on the floor together to help handle that moment. Xavier, who can occasionally jump into the zone, wants to be a man-to-man defensive team.
One of the most exciting things to watch this season is how Xavier looks compared to last season. The exceptions to the two are mostly the same players, but how the plan changes and the way everything works can be very different.
Xavier cannot always rely on his starting line-up. Someone from the bench, preferably two or three players, must fill important roles and must be reliable in doing so.
The two most obvious answers are freshmen – Cloud and Craft.
Kraft provides perimeter firepower for a team that has struggled with close-range shooting. The cloud provides consistency and reliability in the backcourt, another area where it is lacking.
For new students, it is a process. Learning defense, vocabulary and understanding how to make sound decisions. If they can both successfully go through that process, there’s no reason why they can’t both make an impact on the team.
Two other options would be Miles and Tandy. Both were members of Xavier’s 2019 recruiting class and neither really found their footing in the rotation. Early indications are that both are in for a strong summer. But will that carry over into the season?
Strength to the finish line
No one needs to remember how the last few seasons ended at Xavier.
February and March were disappointing months on Victory Parkway. The teams started out strong only to drop out of the standings. It’s the most pressing reason the Musketeers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in four years.
That’s why Miller is back — to build the strength he needs to finish the season stronger and better than when he started.