Using our off-season Power Rankings as a guide, SI.com is asking three questions for each top-10 team in the country.
Will a lack of frontcourt depth hurt the Musketeers?
Xavier is unquestionably strong at guard, with junior wing Trevon Bluiett leading the way and flanked by fellow projected starters sophomore Edmond Sumner and senior Myles Davis (who is facing two criminal charges but hasn’t been suspended), plus several options off the bench. But what about up front? The departures of Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, as well as the unexpected mid-August loss of four-star power forward Eddie Ekiyor (who will instead play for Carleton University in Ottawa), leave the Musketeers with decisions to make at the four and five positions.
Traditional frontcourt options include sophomore Kaiser Gates and junior Sean O'Mara, transfer RaShid Gaston and freshman/four-star recruit Tyrique Jones. At 6’ 10”, O’Mara is the team’s tallest player, but the biggest challenge for him will be staying on the floor. He and Gates each led the team in fouls committed per 40 minutes last season, and none of the above four have experience averaging more than 10.4 minutes in the Big East. Reynolds and Farr led last year’s team in rebounds and combined for 54% of its offensive putbacks (according to hoop-math.com), and while Bluiett can pick up some of that slack he can’t do it alone. As he often did last season, head coach Chris Mack could opt to use only one traditional big man on the floor, but if this team isn’t able to continue last year’s advantage on the glass, that strategy may not be as successful.
Can Edmond Sumner take the next step?
After redshirting his true freshman season due to injury back in 2014–15, Sumner burst onto the scene last year, scoring 19 points in the season opener and going on to average 11.0 points and 3.6 assists and be named to the All-Big East freshman team. A 6’ 6” point guard, Sumner excelled at drawing fouls (averaging 6.2 per 40 minutes, the third-highest mark in the conference according to kenpom.com) and converted at a 72.7% rate at the line. But he shot a shade under 40% from the field and only 30.1% from the three-point line, despite attempting nearly a third of his shots from behind the arc (hoop-math.com). His effective field goal percentage (44.5%) was the worst of the Musketeers’ main contributors, as was his true-shooting percentage (51.6%).
What does this mean? It means that as impressive a freshman season Sumner had last year, he still has plenty of room to grow. His efficiency must improve if he wants to become a No. 1 scoring option, though having Bluiett around means that’s not a necessity for Xavier to be successful. Still, the Musketeers would benefit greatly from a Sumner who can knock down more shots from outside the paint this season, and his overall game would blossom from it as well.
Can Xavier get past Villanova?
The Wildcats, by virtue of being the national champions and bringing back a significant core from that roster, will rightfully be considered the favorite in the Big East. But will the Musketeers prove to be serious challengers to that throne, or will the conference simply turn into a race for second place?
A scary injury to Sumner took the wind out of Xavier’s sails in what became a blowout loss to Villanova in December, but the Musketeers rebounded to defeat the Wildcats by seven at home in February. That win was their first over ‘Nova in seven tries since joining the Big East, and they’ll look to build on that when the two schools meet again in what should be two pivotal regular-season matchups this year. Of course, it’s possible Xavier can contend for the Big East title without beating the Wildcats, however that would require Villanova to slip up elsewhere. ‘Nova only dropped two conference games last season—and Xavier four—so the margin of error for both may be slim. Both Xavier and Villanova suffered a couple notable player losses and bring in a solid freshman class, and their meetings in 2016–17 will be must-see television for any college hoops fan.