November 03, 2016

CINCINNATI (AP) The highest preseason ranking in Xavier's history was met with a shrug in the locker room. These Musketeers have gotten accustomed to the breakthroughs.

No. 7 Xavier put together one of the finest seasons in its history, one that ended with one of its biggest disappointments. A second-round loss to Wisconsin during the NCAA Tournament ended the run prematurely. And now, the Musketeers are back for an encore.

''We talked about it as a team,'' guard J.P. Macura said. ''We figured we're going to come back stronger this year and kind of put it past us.''

Xavier returns the nucleus of a team that went 28-6, was ranked No. 5 for five weeks - the highest ranking in school history - and finished second behind Villanova in the Big East. The Musketeers went 6-1 against Top 25 teams and 3-0 against Top 10 teams, and got the first NCAA No. 2 seed in school history.

Their burst into national prominence prepared them for more of the same.

''We've already had that experience, going through it for a year,'' junior guard Trevon Bluiett said. ''It's kind of like we know what to expect rather than just running around like chickens. I think last year definitely prepared us for this year.''

The Musketeers return four of their top six scorers in Bluiett (15.1 points per game), Myles Davis (10.8), point guard Edmond Sumner (11) and Macura (9.4). Davis, a senior guard, is suspended indefinitely while facing misdemeanor charges alleging he damaged his former girlfriend's property.

Their biggest loss is on the front line. Forwards James Farr and Jalen Reynolds combined for more than 14 rebounds per game last season. It'll be more of a group effort this time around.

''We're going to look different,'' coach Chris Mack said. ''That's what college basketball is all about. We may not have one or two guys like a year ago who average close to double figures.''

Some things to watch:

QUICKER BLUIETT: The 6-foot-6 guard dropped his weight from 217 pounds to 194 in the offseason, trying to add quickness and strength. His teammates and coaches have noticed a difference in practice.

''What's changed is his ability to sustain his level of play,'' Mack said. ''It does make him quicker, so I'd like to see him add an ability to get to the rim more than he has in years past. If anything, it should give Trevon the ability to sustain the level of play.''

SUMNER GROWS UP: Sumner averaged 3.6 assists as a redshirt freshman last season. He showed an ability to dash past defenders for acrobatic moves to the hoop but too often took a difficult shot instead of passing. His charging call set up Wisconsin's winning shot in the tournament. He's more of a vocal leader in practice and showing a more rounded game.

''When he gets to the rim, he makes better decisions,'' Mack said. ''He doesn't force shots. He's finding those (open) guys really, really well.''

GATES REHAB: The Musketeers are looking for 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kaiser Gates to grow into a big role after averaging 10 minutes, 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds last season. He tore cartilage in his left knee and had surgery on Oct. 21. He's expected back on the court in about two weeks.

NEWCOMERS: Senior forward RaShid Gaston sat out last season after transferring from Norfolk State. Forward Malcolm Bernard, a graduate student from Florida A&M, also will help. Freshman guards Tyrique Jones and Quentin Goodin will ease into playing time.

''I would say Tyrique Jones has kind of stood out because he's a freshman but he's not playing like a freshman,'' Bluiett said. ''We need him to play a big role for us. One other guy that stands out to me is Malcolm. He's completely transformed his game.''

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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