The coronavirus pandemic impacted everyone's season last year, but Xavier was a prime example of how momentum could so easily shift. The Musketeers front-loaded their schedule, playing seven games in the first 14 days — but would play just 14 games over the next three months. Between Jan. 10 and Feb. 13, they played just one game. After starting 11–2, they had a two-week break and would finish 2–6 down the stretch.
With more normalcy expected this season, Xavier should benefit. The Musketeers have loads of experience, depth and versatility on their roster.
It's a key season for head coach Travis Steele, too; he hasn't made the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons with the Musketeers and could use this campaign as one to jump-start his legacy in a long line of elite Xavier coaches.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Travis Steele
2020-21 RECORD (BIG EAST): 13-8 (6-7)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: None
F Jason Carter (5.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
F Bryan Griffin (3.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
G C.J. Wilcher (3.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg)
Zach Freemantle was one of the Big East's breakout stars last season, going from averaging 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman to 16.1 points and 8.9 rebounds as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Big East honors. Freemantle was capable of huge performances, including a 30-point, 15-rebound effort against UConn and a 28-point showing against Oklahoma.
Steele reinforced the frontcourt with a pair of Big Ten transfers in Jack Nunge (Iowa) and Jerome Hunter (Indiana). Nunge saw a backup role behind Luka Garza, but he averaged 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in just 15.9 minutes. Hunter played 25 games last season as a sophomore in Bloomington, performing his best down the stretch of the season. Two freshmen are also entering the fold in center Cesare Edwards and forward Elijah Tucker.
Part of the reason Xavier needed to add size and depth was sporadic production from the supporting cast up front. Bryan Griffin tailed off as the season progressed, while Ben Stanley played just four games before suffering a torn ACL. If healthy, Stanley has the potential to be a big-time producer; he averaged 22.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in 2019-20 at Hampton. Sophomore Dieonte Miles is another piece.
Steele has no shortage of options on the perimeter, bringing back four players who started at least 11 games and two more who saw time coming off the bench.
Paul Scruggs' decision to return for a fifth season changed the trajectory of the Musketeers, as he was a second-team All-Big East performer and has started every healthy game for the last three seasons. Scruggs is a tough, physical playmaker who averaged 14.0 points and 5.7 assists last season, both career highs.
Former Gardner-Webb transfer Nate Johnson started 16 games last season before missing the final handful of games with a leg injury. He's an elite shooter who made 45.2 percent of his 3-point attempts last season.
The final starting spot is likely to come down to Colby Jones and Dwon Odom. Odom started the first seven games of the season and also played well down the stretch, while Jones was named to the Big East All-Freshman Team. Odom is a dynamic playmaking point guard who can get to the rim consistently, while Jones offers more size and versatility along the wing.
Two more rotation players returning are junior guard KyKy Tandy, who initially entered the transfer portal before changing his mind, and Adam Kunkel, a former Belmont transfer.
There are no more excuses for Steele and Xavier. The Musketeers have one of the deepest perimeter groups in the Big East, led by an all-league guard in Scruggs, and one of the league's best big men in Freemantle. On paper, they have the pieces to compete for the No. 2 spot in the league behind Villanova.
But you could have made the same argument last season, when the Musketeers started 11–2 before losing six of their final eight games and missing the postseason. Or the year before, when they played themselves into the NCAA Tournament picture before losing three in a row to end the season and arguably sitting on the wrong side of the bubble when the tournament was canceled.
Another late-season fade should not be on the table for Xavier; this is an NCAA Tournament team.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Round of 32
Big East Prediction: 3