Thursday's the day we've all been waiting for since Villanova lost at Virginia. Another shot at a Top 10 team presents itself on New Year's Eve when Xavier rolls in to the Pavilion for the curtain raiser (okay, the one that matters) to the new Big East season.
So, Xavier's pretty damn good. They remind me a lot of Villanova the last 2 years - deep and talented across the board. Are they the best team in the Big East, or do they need to first beat Villanova to officially take the crown in the eyes of Xavier fans?
Xavier is very good and very fun to watch this year. They went to the Sweet 16 twice during my four years at the school, yet I cannot remember a season being this fun. We're on a roller coaster and I personally do not want this to stop.
To be honest, I'm drinking the Kool Aid and I think we are the best team in the Big East right now. But like all good quests, there's a big challenge, and Nova stands in the way. I think to be the top dog in the conference; Xavier has to win on Thursday. We've got a string of good wins so far over Michigan, Dayton, and a few SEC teams, but we have not faced anyone nearly as good as Villanova. Whoever wins on Thursday is top dog in the Big East.
A quick look at KenPom's scouting report would suggest the Muskies are good at just about everything and perhaps elite on the defensive end - what's changed to get them over the hump from the last couple of seasons?
This year's Xavier team is a dream come true from last years team. Xavier had enormous potential, but had a lot of young mistakes (Bluiett), question marks (Farr), and injuries (Sumner). Bluiett is a wiser player and James Farr has completely exploded onto the scene. No one expected Edmond Sumner to be this good and he filled in well for the departed Dee Davis on the point.
Other then just simple improvement, there are two big ways that Xavier has improved to make them a top team: defense and depth. Xavier's defense improved as last season went on, but this season the team is much stronger guarding the ball. Of course, that most applies to inside the arc and I am terrified of Villanova lighting it up from 3, but the defense is something that has lacked for several years and Xavier is finally clicking. The other big improvement is depth. Xavier in years past has had 1-2 skilled, fun to watch players, 3-4 role guys who played well and did their job, and the rest was just scary. Any time someone left the court you wanted to scream "NOOOOOO" at your TV because you knew the guy coming in was going to mess it up.
This year's Xavier team has a depth that is totally unfamiliar to us. We've got so many weapons that can step it up when need be, and the offense does not revolve around just one player. Each night, someone else has a big game and I think that has made it hard for teams to prepare for us. A huge part of that has to do with our recruiting improving ever since we joined the Big East, but it's definitely been nice to have that depth.
Edmond Sumner is a guy Villanova fans aren't familiar with since he sat out last season - break down his game for us.
If you like watching a creative point guard with speed, you will love Sumner. He was honestly a question mark for us too heading into the season after he redshirted last year with a leg injury. We knew that Sumner was a lanky point guard, but we had no idea how much fun he'd be. What impresses me the most with Edmond Sumner is his basketball IQ. I think a lot of that comes from having to sit out his freshman year and watch. Sumner is quick down the court and constantly finds an open man and a good chance. One of our writers, Joel, put it best when he wrote that "we don't have anyone else who can do the things he does." Sumner is leading the team in assists and is averaging 11.7 points per game. I expect him to simply get better with time as he really takes control of this offense.
Welcome to the 'We've got a very good young coach and everybody wants him" club! Any fear that Mack leaves in the near future - it's a given he'll be targeted for bigger jobs - or is Xavier his dream job given his roots (much like Jay Wright's never leaving Villanova)?
It's the most fun and stressful club to be in. Mack is a Xavier guy, so I'm pretty sure this is his dream job. Sports has the tradition of coaches taking bigger jobs with bigger paychecks to give, and college basketball especially has this. There were rumors that Mack was talking to Cal (the school, not the hair gel enthusiast) two years ago, but he didn't take whatever was being offered. I like to think that Mack is a Xavier guy and does not plan to jump ship unless the offer is too good to pass up. He's a local guy, went to St. Xavier High School and played hoops at Xavier University, so I do not see him leaving us unless it's UNC, Duke, etc.
Just like recruiting, I think the Big East has helped with this. Playing in the Big East and having those 18 conference games were most of them are tough (sorry DePaul) is much more appealing to dominating the A-10 like Xavier used to, and I like to think that Mack likes that. Overall, he has done a good job at Xavier, and has made the tournament in 5 of his first 6 seasons as well as 3 sweet 16 appearances. Mack has a job at Xavier for a while, as long as he wants it.
Villanova seems to have regained their shooting stroke, and is now making a concerted effort to play inside-out on offense. A concern for X given their struggles in the past against the 'Cats, or has X figured out how to defend the perimeter this season?
Well, I would be lying if I said that I haven't been thinking about that all day. Xavier has absolutely improved on defense, and I love our 1-3-1 zone, but the perimeter is still a problem. Xavier gives up a lot of 3's and has often times gotten lucky when their opponent goes cold from behind the arc. I'm nervous for how good Villanova is from the perimeter, and I think all Xavier fans are.
Who is your X-Factor (see what I did there?) for Thursday?
Ha ha. As long as you know that our team is the Musketeers and not the "X-Men" it is all good. I'm going to give you two on each side. For Xavier I think that Jalen Reynolds and James Farr are going to be impact players. Both forwards play physical basketball, and when they're not in foul trouble they are busy creating havoc for opponents.
I think Sumner and Bluiett will play well, but I'm really looking for our big men to have great games. And the two Nova players who scare me the most are Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono. Both players can hit it from deep and play a style of basketball that could cause problems for Xavier. Of course, I'd prefer they both go cold and have bad games on Thursday, but I think both of them could have a big impact on the game.
Predictions for Thursday afternoon?
Xavier-77 Villanova-70. Both teams play good basketball, but I think Xavier finally has enough weapons to take down Villanova. I remember Xavier outplayed Nova in our meeting in February, but just did not have the gas to sustain it when Villanova started hitting their shots. Losing sucks, but that game made me really think that a stronger Xavier team could do it, and I think this is the year. It's going to be close, but I'm drinking the Kool Aid and I think Xavier is going to win.