By Joe Clark, Sports Editor
Coming off an 83-63 dismantling of rival Cincinnati in the Crosstown Shootout on Saturday night, the Xavier men’s basketball team is sitting at 9-1 and is ranked at No. 22 in the most recent AP Poll. The Musketeers have been playing well on both ends of the floor and will look to improve their NCAA Tournament resume with Big East play starting on Saturday. Here are some takeaways from the Musketeers’ season so far.
- This is the best defense Xavier has had under Travis Steele
The Musketeers have allowed over 70 points in just two games this season: An 82-70 loss to undefeated Iowa State and a 77-71 win over Oklahoma State on Dec. 5. The Musketeers are currently 33rd in KenPom’s adjusted defense metric and their effective field goal percentage against is 42.8%, which ranks 12th in the nation according to KenPom. Senior guard Nate Johnson is a talented on-ball defender, as is sophomore guard Dwon Odom and junior forward Jerome Hunter while junior big man Jack Nunge and sophomore big Dieonte Miles have shown the ability to block or change shots at the rim. One big thing that the stats don’t necessarily show is the connectivity Xavier has had defensively this year. Whether they’re in man or zone, the communication and help defense has been noticeably better this season compared to the past. To win in the Big East, teams need to defend and rebound and at a high level, and Xavier is doing both effectively.
- Jack Nunge is a legitimate difference maker
The Iowa transfer is coming off a career-high 31 points and career-high 15 rebounds in the win against Cincinnati in a game where he was simply unstoppable. The Cincinnati game wasn’t an anomaly, either. Nunge had 14 points and 14 rebounds in the win over Ohio State, while chipping in 24 points in the Iowa State loss. Against Virginia Tech, Nunge had nine points and 14 rebounds including a clutch three to tie the game up late. Nunge was overshadowed at Iowa playing behind Luka Garza and battling injuries, but he’s shown that he’s more than capable of holding his own at a high level. If Nunge can keep up this level of play down the stretch, the rest of the country should be worried about Xavier.
- Xavier needs to cut down on turnovers
The Musketeers did a good job limiting their turnovers against Cincinnati with just nine total, but turnovers have been an issue so far for Xavier. They rank 262nd in the country in turnover percentage, and had 17 in the loss against Iowa State and another 17 in the Oklahoma State win. In order to consistently win in the Big East, Xavier will have to cut that number down.
- Nate Johnson is an elite shooter
Johnson was one of the best shooters in the country last year until Xavier’s numerous COVID-19 pauses, but he’s picked it right back up this year. Johnson is shooting 47.5% from beyond the arc this season and has knocked down three or more triples in five games this season. Travis Steele has repeatedly said he believes Johnson is the best shooter in the country, and he’s showing why this season. If Johnson can stay a consistent threat from the perimeter, Xavier will continue to win a lot of games.
- Colby Jones looks like a future NBA player
Every single game Jones blows me away with his basketball IQ. He just always seems to be making the right play, and his rebounding (especially on the offensive end) has been incredible this season. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie had Jones at No. 60 on his preseason NBA Draft big board, and I’d be shocked if he isn’t higher when Vecenie releases his second iteration later this season. Jones’ rebounding, extremely high IQ and consistent shot this season (38% from three on 21 attempts) should put him on the radar of NBA scouts.