This was originally published in The Athletic.
Think of what Xavier’s basketball program has lost. Gone from last year’s Big East title roster are five guys that combined to average 57 points per game, including the program’s second all-time leading scorer. Three of the top four players in minutes per game are have departed, and even if losing Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O’Mara and Kerem Kanter could be planned for, losing Kaiser Gates – who would have certainly stepped into a more prominent scoring role – was a blow made bigger by the roster turmoil triggered by Chris Mack leaving for Louisville.
Gone is not only as XU’s winningest and most successful coach, but also someone who had steadied a job that had been almost defined by constant turnover. Mack had guided the program into the Big East and helped elevate the national profile of a program that had already established a track record of success.
Yet there remains a sense of calmness despite the months of turmoil. Travis Steele ascends to the head coach’s office as Xavier relies on proven track record of promoting from within. Steele’s recruiting acumen provides reasons to believe the steady stream of quality players will continue. Steele had to scramble to fill out the roster, but he enters his first season with the luxury of having an experienced point guard in Quentin Goodin, and in Naji Marshall, a sophomore with all-league potential.
Maybe the Musketeers will be hard-pressed to equal the success of a team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but there’s reasons to believe that Steele’s first season can finish with XU getting its name called on Selection Sunday.
With the season here, there’s no one more qualified to answer my five burning questions about Xavier basketball than our XU beat writer, Shannon Russell…
Let’s start with the change at the top. I was a proponent of Travis Steele getting the head coaching job when Chris Mack left for Louisville. I felt like the easiest way to make the change from a long-tenured head coach to someone else was to elevate someone from the staff, and given Travis’ recruiting reputation and that Xavier so often has had success by promoting from within, it made sense to give him a chance to run the program. You’ve been around this program for a while, so tell how you think the way Steele will run the program compared to the way Mack ran his. What differences in the way the Musketeers play will fans notice?
SR: Travis Steele was in Xavier’s program for 10 years, starting as a director of basketball operations under Sean Miller, so one of the biggest things he brings to the program is continuity. He knows Xavier basketball inside-out and has been on the bench for some of the biggest wins in program history. When he was promoted to the head role March 31, Steele said he planned to stick to many principles executed by Sean Miller and Chris Mack while adding his own stamp. So the pack-line defense stays – every practice, managers still tape the 16-foot arc in which players congest the lane and shut down dribble penetration – with the same attention to high hands, blocking out and rebounding.
Xavier will look a lot like it did last year stylistically. It primarily will be a man-to-man team with some zone mixed in. So what about the 1-3-1? Mack struck gold with that zone formation a few years back. It was successful because of its personnel – in one incarnation it was lengthy James Farr down low and scrappy J.P. Macura harassing opponents up top – but this team is different. There’s no Macura-esque antagonist on the roster. While XU might occasionally mix it up with a 1-3-1, it more likely will play a version of a 2-3.
The biggest difference fans will see under Steele is more pressing. He has made it clear that XU isn’t going to become “Press Virginia” like the Mountaineers are under Bob Huggins, or play “Havoc” like Shaka Smart did at VCU, but even five percent more pressing could make a difference for a team that lost 67.5 percent of its scoring from last season. The team’s goal is to amass as many easy scores as possible, and plucking turnovers and buckets via a press is all about energy and extending runs. Look for it after free throws and timeouts. Xavier is faster and more athletic than last season, so it will lean on those opportunities to parlay defense to offense.
The offense could require some creativity to get chugging but it probably won’t change drastically in the half-court. Steele had a big part in instructing the Musketeers’ offense under Mack, so returnees are accustomed to the schemes and expectations. They’re also used to hearing Steele talk. That’s one less change that came with the hiring of a new head coach.
To read more, go to The Athletic.
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