With many games still left to play, Miller’s return has already been a success
By Will Pembroke, Sports Editor
In a Big East matchup that featured a pre-game spread of 17.5 points in favor of Xavier early Saturday morning, I was not expecting to read that a sell-out crowd was on hand to watch the Musketeers play in Cintas Center against a struggling Georgetown Hoyas team. Once I entered the arena before tipoff, I quickly realized exactly why there was a sellout crowd: Head Coach Sean Miller.
Now, you might say, “Well, Miller doesn’t actually play in the game.” While that is true, this Musketeer men’s basketball team is not the same team. It is not the same talented team that had consistently fallen short under former head coach Travis Steele. This team represents the athletic standard that is expected at Xavier University, characterized by a physical, tough, intelligent and beautiful brand of basketball — otherwise known as the Miller brand of basketball.
The numbers back up the eye test for Xavier, which is in short, quite spectacular. According to teamrankings.com, Xavier ranks first in assists per game, second in points per game, fourth in both first and second half scoring average, fifth in three-point percentage, eighth in assist to turnover ratio and ninth in overall shooting efficiency. It’s safe to say the offense is coming in bunches for Xavier right now. In the span of ten days, from Jan. 11-21, the Muskies scored 90 points in a game twice against both Creighton and Georgetown.
Graduate transfer Souley Boum is perhaps the best example of Miller’s impact on Xavier basketball. While this year’s team is largely the same as last year’s, Miller made one under-the-radar offseason move to bolster the squad: giving the keys of the offense to Boum. Boum has been at the center of it all, running the show as the team’s point guard. His court awareness, outside shooting ability and slashing style of play have added a new element to Xavier’s offense that makes the team nearly unguardable.
Xavier may very well have the most potent offense in the country. Senior Zach Freemantle and graduate student Jack Nunge have been inside grabbing rebounds, dicing opposing teams up with crafty interior moves and occasionally stepping outside to knock down the three-point shot. Freemantle almost recorded a 30-point triple double against Georgetown, finishing three assists shy of the mark.
Junior guard Colby Jones and senior Adam Kunkel have showcased improvement in their respective games since last year. Jones has shown an improved ability to knock down the three, with his three-point shooting percentage up seven percent over his career average, not to mention his already stellar playmaking and guard rebounding.
Kunkel, a player who was somewhat erratic with his play last season, has significantly raised all of his shooting percentages this season and has shown a consistent commitment to defense in his first year playing for Miller.
Perhaps the best development story of them all is senior sixth man Jerome Hunter. This year, he has increased his field goal percentage by nearly 30 points. Yes, 30. The energy and effort he has always played with on the defensive end of the floor has only gotten better. Hunter is the glue guy on this team, doing whatever needs to be done for Xavier to win.
The one area that has haunted, and continues to haunt, the Musketeers is free throw shooting. As of Monday, Xavier ranks No. 147 in the country in free throw shooting percentage. That is not good enough, and the team knows it. To win the Big East and beyond, Xavier has to find a way to make the free ones more consistently.
Despite the free throw shooting, it is clear both in the statistics and from the eye test that this year’s Xavier squad is different in almost every way under Miller’s leadership. Miller didn’t come in and change the entire roster; he worked with the talent that he had, which we are now beginning to see was plentiful. He has helped turn poor shooters into better ones, non-defenders into effort and energy guys on that end of the floor and most of all he took a team whose competitive spirit was drained from three straight years of coming up short and lit a fire under them.
Millers’ passion on the sideline is unmatched. His mid-game engagement with the players is most impactful. Though he wouldn’t take the credit for Xavier’s current success on the basketball court, Miller is owed a debt of gratitude for turning this program into a winner once again.