By Jake Geiger | Staff Writer
The Big East has cemented itself as one of college basketball’s premier conferences, and there is a valid reason for that.
Unlike some other conferences, the Big East is consistently viewed as one that stays “old.” It proves to be tough sledding for younger and inexperienced teams.
That won’t be the case for Xavier.
The Musketeers enter the 2019-20 campaign with a veteran-laden roster and the conference’s second-best recruiting class to boot.
Mix in some depth, a few transfers and a head coach who values the fundamentals of the game, and Xavier has the elements to improve on a 19-16 season.
“We took it upon ourselves to hold each other more accountable, not just coach (Travis) Steele,” senior point guard Quentin Goodin said. “We didn’t want the same thing to happen this year like it did last year. One of the big things that’s different this year is our chemistry and our jell. That happened almost instantly when we met each other.”
Last year, the Musketeers failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012-13 in head coach Travis Steele’s opening season at the helm of the program.
“I was proud of the way our guys responded at the end of the year,” Steele said. “I thought we got a lot better as the year went on. Kudos to those guys – they were the reason we turned the season around.”
This season, the bar is set high, and the coaches’ poll provided an early indication of that as Xavier was picked to finish third in the conference. The key to fulfilling that ranking may very well come down to the play of the team leaders.
The Musketeers return 80% of their starting lineup and are the only team in the Big East to bring back four double-digit scorers from the previous season: seniors Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin along with juniors Naji Marshall and Paul Scruggs.
Jones is a disruptive force on the interior and a board-getter on the glass. At one point last season, he led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. He has shed a considerable amount of weight since his arrival to Xavier, and he is visibly more mobile on the court. He brings an infectious presence and hovers around the rim equipped with a powerful two-handed slam.
Goodin, who secured his spot on Xavier’s top-10 career assists list last year, is a distributor at the point guard position.
Last year, he averaged a team-high 4.8 assists per game. Goodin also has success driving to the basket, utilizing his strength paired with a big frame. He offers a wealth of experience since being thrust into a starting role midway through his freshman season.
He’s battled some injuries during his career, including plantar fasciitis and a shoulder problem, but he is healthy to begin the 2019-20 campaign.
“I think it’s big,” Steele said about Goodin’s abilities as a distributor. “He’s gotta be the guy that’s a calming influence on the offensive end. He’s a senior. He’s played in a lot of games, played in a lot of different environments … He has a gift to find the open guy, especially out of the pick and rolls and in transition. I think that’s the best thing he does, and he could be the best in the Big East in doing that.”
Marshall and Scruggs each enjoyed breakout seasons last year, settling into more influential roles as starters. As sophomores, they saw ample on-court action and were first and third on the team in average minutes played per game.
Marshall, a Big East All-First Team selection and Xavier’s leading scorer last year, has great length and a relentless slasher approach. He motors to the rim often and can beat defenders using his athleticism.
Scruggs is a versatile player who can assume both the point guard and shooting guard positions.
His all-around game features the ability to drive, shoot and create space without sacrificing much on the defensive end. He is a highly efficient scorer for a backcourt player, last year shooting 46% overall and nearly 38% from beyond the arc.
Steele believes this team will be an inside-out squad – it’s built around drivers and post players primarily – and shooting will be a secondary option.
Xavier will predominantly employ man-to-man defense, but the sets may vary based on the opponent. Steele cited defensive improvements and wants to establish a top 25 defense. At full strength, the team has the ability to guard one through five, Steele said.
“Our bread and butter needs to be our man-to-man defense,” Steele said. “We will change it up within our man-to-man – how we cover ball screens, maybe picking up a little bit more full court, especially with our guard depth that we have this year – but we want to be known for our half court man defense.”
For Steele, the formula is simple: If the Musketeers can play hard, mistake-free and disciplined basketball, a lot of games will be placed in the win column this season.