Tuesday, October 11, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 19 Xavier Musketeers

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 24-8, 15-1 (1st Atlantic 10), lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Marquette

Head Coach: Chris Mack

Key Losses: Jamel McLean, Dante Jackson, Jay Canty

Newcomers: Dezmine Wells, Andre Walker, Travis Taylor, Justin Martin, Dee Davis

Projected Lineup:

- G: Tu Holloway, Sr.
- G: Mark Lyons, Jr.
- F: Andre Walker, Sr.
- F: Travis Taylor, Jr.
- C: Kenny Frease, Sr.
- Bench: Dezmine Wells, Fr.; Justin Martin, Fr.; Brad Redford, Jr.; Dee Davis, Fr.; Griffin McKenzie, So.

Outlook: Early on in 2010-2011, it looked like Xavier was going to be headed for a long season. Sniper Brad Redford (torn acl) and lauded newcomer Justin Martin (poor grades) were both lost for the year before the season started, leaving the Muskies painfully thin on the perimeter. Xavier went 8-5 during non-conference play, getting taken to overtime by IPFW and Wofford and ending the preseason with a 20 point shellacking from Crosstown Shootout rival Cincinnati. Once A-10 play started, however, Xavier became a different team. Dante Jackson and Mark Lyons finally found a rhythm, Kenny Frease slowly gained confidence in the post and the Musketeers managed to reel off 15 wins in 16 league games, sneaking their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Xavier loses a couple key pieces in Dante Jackson and Jamel McLean. Jackson was a dangerous three-point threat and a tenacious defender, while McLean was one of the best athletes in the conference and a nightmare to try and box out. Replacing the experience, leadership and toughness those two brought to the table will not be an easy thing for Xavier to do.

The good news is that they do have the pieces in place to do so. We'll start with the obvious -- Tu Holloway. If it weren't for a guy named Jordan Taylor at Wisconsin, Holloway would probably be considered the best point guard in the country. He's also one of the most clutch players in the country; there may not be five players in the country that I would want at the foul line in the final minute more than him. He carried Xavier for long stretches of the season in 2010-2011 and, up until a five point performance in the opening round loss of the NCAA Tournament, was one of just three players (along with Nolan Smith and Norris Cole) to average 20 ppg, 5 rpg, and 5 apg. Holloway is a terrific creator with the ball in his hands, thriving as a pick-and-roll point guard, but the danger is that sometimes he becomes too much of a dribbler. With the amount of talent that Holloway will have around him this season, it will be important that he embraces the role of facilitator just as much as he does lead-scorer.

Joining Holloway in the back court will be Mark Lyons, who really has a chance to become a big-time player as a junior. Lyons is more of a slasher than a point guard, but he's capable of handling the ball and creating shots for his teammates. Late in the season Lyons started to find more consistency with his jumper and had some big games, but where he can get into trouble is when he falls in love with shooting and forgets about putting the ball on the floor. With more quality jump shooters on the roster this year, Lyons should be able to focus on getting to the rim, which is his strong-suit. One of those shooters will be the guy that spells Lyons -- Brad Redford. Redford, a junior, should be back to 100%. When he is, he's one of the most dangerous shooters in the country.

Kenny Frease will be the guy that holds down the center position. Finally a starter last season, it took Frease a while to really find his rhythm in the paint. But once he did, he turned into one of the best big men in the Atlantic 10, posting some big games as a junior. A large part of that success was due to Frease finally getting into good enough condition that he can play extended minutes. I'd expect sophomore Griffin McKenzie to see minutes giving Frease a blow. McKenzie was a fairly well-regarded recruit and Cincinnati native, but he was assaulted prior to the season starting and it took him awhile to get back into the mix. McKenzie is a big-body, but he also has a soft touch on his jumper.

Where this Xavier team gets dangerous is at the forward spots, where they will be loaded heading into the season. At the small forward spot, it figures to be two freshmen that will battle it out for minutes. True freshman Dezmine Wells appears to be the perfect fit for the Xavier program. A solidly-built and extremely athletic (he's been described to be as a "freak") 6'4" wing, Wells plays the game like a football player. He's a terrific on-ball defender, he attacks the basket off the dribble and he cleans the glass. Redshirt freshman Justin Martin plays a different style. He's more of a jump-shooter, but his 6'7" frame allows him to play the three. With Holloway at the point, its feasible that these two could share the court.

The power forward spot will be the toughest spot to get minutes this season for Xavier as two transfers -- Andre Walker from Vanderbilt and Travis Taylor from Monmouth -- and one junior -- Jeff Robinson -- will be competing for time. Walker is the most versatile of the three, as he can play either forward spot. He's a tough defender and a kid that started as a sophomore at Vanderbilt. Taylor is probably the best rebounder of the group and the most likely to fill the void left by McLean, at least early in the season. Robinson is an x-factor. There is no denying his ability, as he's a long and athletic 6'9" forward. He went for 22 points when he got a chance to start against La Salle, including this dunk, but he needs to be more consistent in his effort. Can he embrace the roll of spark-plug off the bench?

There is no question that this Xavier team has talent, but my concern is that there may actually be too much talent. There are so many moving pieces on this roster and so many players deserving of extended minutes that head coach Chris Mack could end up forcing upper-classmen to ride the bench for freshmen that are more talented. Will he be able to manage their egos? Will guys that expect or want to be 10-15 ppg scorers be able to replicate the glue-guy performances of Dante Jackson and Jamel McLean? If all the pieces end up coming together and Tu Holloway plays like we expect him to, this ranking may end up looking silly at the end of the season.

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