To illustrate the huge leap Xavier basketball has made over the past 2 decades let's look at some stats:
NCAA tournament appearances before 1989: 5
NCAA tournament appearances after 1989: 15
Sweet 16 appearances before 1989: 0
Sweet 16 appearances after 1989: 4
Elite 8 appearances before 1989: 0
Elite 8 appearances after 1989: 2
NBA players before 1989: 0
NBA players after 1989: 10
It's true that joining the Atlantic 10 and getting better basketball facilities have been main reasons for this immense progression, but Xavier has continued to improve nearly each year and isn't content with just making the NCAA tournament any more.
Even though the program is growing and gaining more national recognition every year, Xavier still realizes some of the setbacks that come with being a mid-major. The main setback is with our head coaches and the inability to keep one around. The past decade has seen 4 different head coaches at Xavier, the first 3 leaving X for bigger conferences and paychecks.Chris Mack was announced as Xavier's new head coach on April 15 and succeeds Sean Miller, who recently took over as Arizona's head coach. Mack spent the past five seasons as an assistant on Miller's staff at Xavier and is a former captain on the Xavier basketball team, graduating in 1992. Mack also worked on Skip Prosser's squad at Xavier for 2 years and then at Wake Forest for 3 years after Skip left X. His resume as an assistant is impressive and he was most definitely the most qualified man for the job on Xavier's coaching staff.
Mack is enthusiastic about the opportunity to coach at his alma mater and will try to build on the foundation that our recent coaches have laid. The last 2 Xavier coaches (Miller and Thad Matta) have been to the Elite 8 in each of their tenures, something that no other coach in Xavier history had done previously. Its easy to see that the bar for Mack is set high as Xavier and its fans have great expectations for this young squad and hope to get to another level in the postseason, namely the Final 4. Mack has a good deal of experience in the NCAA tournament, going there as an assistant almost every year with Prosser and Miller, and will hopefully be a quick learner throughout the regular season. If he can pull this team together early and get some crucial out-of-conference wins, it will be much easier to build confidence in his young players heading into conference play and the postseason.
A good coach is important but he can't score points. Here's a breakdown of the 2009-10 team's key players:
G- Terrell Holloway, 6-0, 185, Sophomore
Holloway came to Xavier last year as a transfer from Indiana (thank you Kelvin Sampson) and performed well given his freshman status and how much Xavier depended on him to run the point. At times he would excite fans with his slick passing and quick hands, but other times saw him turning the ball over entirely too much and costing Xavier big in some games. Setbacks are obviously part of the learning curve and overall Holloway looked like a solid starter for much of the season.
Now a staple in the starting lineup, Holloway will be counted on to lead from the PG spot more and distribute to his teammates. This added responsibility will force him to mature quickly and take care of the basketball or risk losing minutes to talented newcomer Mark Lyons, who pushed Holloway for the starting PG spot in the offseason. Either way Holloway has the opportunity to join great Xavier point guards of the recent past (Lionel Chalmers, Drew Lavender) if he can use his speed while staying under control and utilize the weapons he has around him.
G- Dante Jackson, 6-5, 195, Junior
Jackson is starting to remind me of recent Xavier star Stanley Burrell, a lock down defender who provides a great spark to his teammates and can hit jumpers. Although this might not seem very glamorous, there's no doubt that Dante's role on the Musketeers is crucial and will be a big factor in Xavier's success this season. As a sophomore last year, Jackson started at PG/SG and developed solid ball-handling skills while shutting down the other team's best guard on most nights.
Dante's defensive prowess will most likely be the focus of his game this year as Holloway and Mark Lyons will take over the main PG duties and Jordan Crawford will be the main option for X at shooting guard. There's a good opportunity for Jackson to get a lot of open looks from 3 as other guards are able to draw defenders into the lane and dish it out to him. As long as Jackson takes care of the ball on offense and finds his shot from time to time, while still providing takeaways on the defensive end, he'll help this team excel throughout the season.
G- Jordan Crawford, 6-4, 195, Sophomore
Crawford got more hype than Transformers 2 this summer after he dunked on Lebron James (biggg time) at one of Lebron's summer camps. Seeing Crawford play though makes it obvious why there is so much excitement around him and what he can bring to a team. As a freshman at Indiana, Jordan was a starter almost immediately and contributed greatly in all phases of the game. He was a solid scorer, both inside and outside, and could shut down opposing guards with his stifling defense, making him one of the most versatile, talented freshman in the country.
Now at Xavier, Crawford will be a standout in the Atlantic 10 while making everyone around him better too. He's shown the ability to draw defenders and get easy scores for his teammates in early exhibition games and his basketball I.Q. seems to be one of his greatest strengths. It's going to be exciting to watch him compete this year and see just how good he can be when playing other top level competition.
F- Jamel McLean, 6-8, 235, Junior
As a transfer from Tulsa last year McLean was a very solid, reliable bench player. Averaging around 15 minutes a game he was called on mainly in defensive situations as his leaping ability made him a dependable rebounder and an above average shot blocker. This year, though, his role will be expanded as he moves into a starting role and will be required to shoulder more of the load in the paint.
McLean's main strengths are still his rebounding and defensive abilities, but what he's done to improve his weaknesses are what's going to make him a much better all around player. Last season Jamel shot around 40% from the free throw line and didn't have anything resembling a jumpshot in his game, things that really led to him being kept on the bench during end-of-game situations. This offseason he worked hard on both those areas and is really showing it through the first 2 exhibition games and last Friday's season opener against Youngstown St. He looks much more comfortable having the ball outside the lane and has even drained a few nice jumpers, something that will make him extremely hard to defend if he can do it consistently.
P.S.- Look for Jamel to make numerous highlight reels during the season, few in the country can throw it down like him.
F- Jason Love, 6-9, 255, Senior
The only senior on the roster, Jason Love will set the tone for this young team with his strong work ethic and tough attitude. As a starter last year, Love was one of the best offensive rebounders in the conference and relied on strong fundamentals and solid free throw shooting to keep him in the starting lineup. Although not as talented as some of the opponents he went against, Love always held his own in the paint and never let his smaller size become an excuse.
Over his career Love's been to the Elite 8, the Sweet Sixteen twice and the second round of the NCAA tournament three times, making him one of the most accomplished players ever at Xavier. This level of success will only serve to motivate him more as he tries to get the Musketeers a level no Xavier team has ever been to. Love's progression has been noticeable each year he's been at Xavier and there's no way its going to stop this season, he'll come out hungry and motivate his team every night from start to finish.
Bench: Brad Redford, Kenny Frease, Mark Lyons, Jeff Robinson
The Musketeers bench is young but extremely talented this season as they will most likely go 9 deep (maybe 10 if Brian Walsh learns how to dribble). Mark Lyons has freshman eligibility as he redshirted last year and will be anxious to get on the floor and prove what he can do. Lyons' speed is probably his greatest asset as it will allow him to get steals at the defensive end and really put pressure on opposing teams as he pushes the ball from the PG spot. He will be joined by one more significant frosh on the bench in Jeff Robinson. Robinson, a Purdue transfer, is a lean 6'9" and will play more of an athletic role when he's on the floor rather than playing a typical PF role and staying down low for rebounding. His long wingspan and leaping ability give him great defensive possibilities and will help increase his minutes if he can show them off early. Between the two, Lyons will get a lot more playing time than Robinson initially as he has been with the team longer and feels more comfortable on the court while Robinson only committed to Xavier in late June and doesn't have a great familiarity with Chris Mack's system or the college game. The future is certainly bright for both of these talented newcomers, though, and hopefully we'll get to see some flashes of that talent this season.
The other 2 significant bench players for Xavier are a pair of sophomores who saw a good amount of minutes last season as freshmen. Kenny Frease came in last year as one of the most hyped recruits in Xavier history, ranked by many as one of the top 10 centers in the country coming out of high school. His 7'0" frame made him an unstoppable force in every high school game he played in and got some big attention from scouts. Frease's performance, however, didn't echo his lofty expectations last season and he struggled to find an offensive identity when he was in, turning the ball over far too often and committing costly fouls when they weren't necessary. Kenny will need to find better ways to utilize his immense size and show some serious improvement on both ends of the floor if he wants to be a factor in critical situations this year. Brad Redford is the other sophomore option off the bench and he's got one purpose: make 3's look like layups. Redford has unlimited range when he gets on the floor and is always looking for his shot, nailing 47% of the 3's he took last season as a freshman. His 6'0" height, though, is both exaggerated (he might be 5'10") and detrimental to his shot as the defense is almost always bigger than him and makes him work extremely hard to get his shot off. He's worked hard in the offseason to put on muscle and become more physical on both ends of the court because his limited physical stature hurt him greatly at times last year. He was a defensive liability at many times and must improve that aspect of his game if he hopes to gain more meaningful minutes.
Xavier's evolution into a perennial top 25 team is also thanks to the schedule they play, featuring games with power conference teams every year. Here are some key games from Xavier's 2009-10 schedule:
11/26/09- The Old Spice Classic Tournament in Orlando, FL featuring Marquette, Michigan, Alabama, Creighton, Baylor and Florida St.
12/8/09- at Kansas St.
12/19/09- at Butler
1/3/10- at Wake Forest
1/20/10- at Temple
2/6/10- at Dayton
2/13/10- at Florida
Cincinnati and Dayton provide huge rivalry games every year for Xavier, and may be even more significant this season as both teams are very solid and could make deep runs in the postseason. Tough road games at Kansas St., Butler, Wake Forest, Temple and Florida will test our young team but also provide much needed experience for March. As long as Xavier can handle the road pressure early on and pull out a few wins, they should be well tested and poised for a deep run in the NCAA tourney yet again.
This is the first post of the season so save up, the highs and lows of college basketball are many. Xavier's next game is tomorrow night against Bowling Green and I have to start thinking of excuses to get out of my night class early, I hope everyone else uses their time as constructively. The march to March has begun.