With Villanova winning the NCAA national championship last April and elevating the profile of the Big East Conference in the process, you might have forgotten about the special season Xavier had.
The Musketeers stormed out of the gate en route to winning their first 12 games of the season (including victories against Michigan, Alabama, USC, Dayton and Cincinnati). Head coach Chris Mack’s club then became a mainstay in the top 10 and proceeded to win 14 Big East contests to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
A bitter loss to Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament ended the Musketeers’ season prematurely, but Xavier let the college basketball world know that it was a legitimate Final Four contender.
That theme won’t change.
As Mack and the Musketeers enter the 2016-’17 season, reaching the Final Four is still a tangible goal. The Big East coaches picked Xavier to finish second, and you can bet the Musketeers will be close to a top-10 team when the season begins.
Mack knows there are high expectations this season, especially when he boasts a tremendous backcourt led by preseason All-Big East First Team members Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner.
“It’s been really cool to watch our guys grow from freshman year from all the way to this media day as juniors,” Mack told Today’s U about his junior guards (note, Sumner is a redshirt sophomore but came in the same class as Bluiett and J.P. Macura).
“They’re now some of the better players in the league. I think anytime a coach can bring back experience from the backcourt, it gives you a very comforting feeling. Knowing that they’ve been in these situations before, they know what it takes to close and end games. I wouldn’t trade those three guys for any in the conference.”
Sumner talked about the challenges ahead in getting the program to the promised land. He said that “One of our biggest goals is to win the Big East and get to the Final Four.”
He is eager to build off a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 11 points, 3.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
Sumner also knows Xavier has never made it to the Final Four.
“The farthest we got (as a program) is Elite 8, so we want to get over that hump,” Sumner said. “With this group we feel those are realistic goals.”
Another key member of the backcourt, senior shooting guard Myles Davis, may or may not be back this season: Davis is still suspended. Mack told Today’s U that Davis will have to clear “some hurdles” in the next few weeks to rejoin the program.
While Xavier’s backcourt is a major strength, the frontcourt is still a work in progress. Mack lost two key bangers in Jalen Reynolds and James Farr from last season and is looking for junior Sean O’Mara, freshman Tyrique Jones and Norfolk State transfer RaShid Gaston to step up in the frontcourt.
Gaston, in particular, has many Xavier fans excited. He averaged 15.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 62.6 percent from the field in his last season with the Spartans.
Mack thinks he can be an effective weapon down low.
“RaShid is a very psychical player,” Mack said. “He can rebound the ball at an extremely high level. But we’re going to have to do it a little more collectively. I think our team understands that.
“James and Jalen could rebound as well as anybody in our league. We’re going to have to figure out a way to do it collectively. We got good size on the perimeter, so our guards are going to have to gather more rebounds than maybe they have in years past. There’s one thing that we’ve prided ourselves on, and that’s rebounding the ball. This coming year will be no different.”
Also helping out will be two versatile forwards: Florida A&M transfer Malcolm Bernard and emerging sophomore Kaiser Gates.
Mack especially loves the potential in Gates.
“Anytime you go from freshman year to sophomore year – and unless you sit on the couch all summer – you make a big jump,” Mack said. “Kaiser spent the entire summer on our campus getting stronger. He can shoot the ball as well as any four-man in the conference. We expect big things out of Kaiser.”
While Xavier came up short last March, both Sumner and Mack will use last season’s bitter loss to Wisconsin as motivation to get over the hump.
“I felt bad for our seniors,” Mack said about the loss to Wisconsin. “But it’s fuel for motivation. We’re trying to figure out what we can do better – both individually and collectively – to have a better outcome. The longer you are in this game, the more experiences you are going to have like that. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“I don’t think about it much (the loss to Wisconsin),” added Sumner. “It’s still in the back of our minds because we fell short. With the team we had last year we could have went a lot farther. Now we’re just trying to correct what we didn’t do at the end of the year.”