Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 4/20/12

The final team on the Non-BCS Watch List is a perennial NCAA Tournament team that boasts one of the top players in the nation.

Xavier Musketeers

Looking Back

Xavier stumbled out of the gate last season, losing five of their first 13 games due in part to a series of injuries and the ineligibility of a key freshman.  Coach Chris Mack rallied the troops, and the Muskies won 16 of their final 17 regular season games.  They finished 15-1 in the Atlantic 10, but a one-point loss to Dayton in their first game of the conference tournament dropped them to a six seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they fell to Marquette in the first round.

The Musketeers finished 45th in the Pomeroy Ratings, and despite a sharp decline in their pace of play, the offense ranked in the Top 50 for the fifth straight season.  They were efficient at getting to the free throw line and posted Top 75 numbers for both effective field goal and turnover percentages.  The Xavier defense ranked 59th overall, which was their lowest mark since 2006-07.  They were particularly adept at preventing offensive rebounds but struggled to force turnovers.

All but two key members of the rotation return for Xavier, but those two players will be challenging to replace.  Jamel McLean scored 10.6 points per game and led the team in rebounding, while Dante Jackson did a little bit of everything and was one of the team’s top defenders.

This Year’s Musketeers

You would be hard-pressed to find a player who does more for his team than Tu Holloway.  The senior guard led the team in points (19.7 ppg), assists (5.4 apg), and steals (1.4 spg) to go with 5.0 rebounds per game as well.  Holloway played a staggering 94.5 percent of the team’s minutes and was nationally rated in a number of advanced statistics.  Among the most impressive is the fact that he drew 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes, which led to 270 free throw attempts and a 68.2 free throw rate.  Holloway hit an impressive 87 percent from the stripe and was rightfully named the A-10 Player of the Year.  It’s hard to see him not extending that reign as its top player this season.

Junior Mark Lyons joins Holloway in the starting backcourt.  He finished second to Holloway in scoring and assists last year while grabbing three rebounds per game.  Lyons isn’t a terrific shooter, but he can score in a variety of ways and does a nice job of getting to the line.  Along with Holloway, Lyons will provide stability from the backcourt for a team looking to break in a number of new players.

Seven-footer Kenny Frease returns inside, but he was recently suspended indefinitely for “not fulfilling all the responsibilities of a Xavier basketball player.”  Last season he finished second on the team in rebounding with 7.1 boards per game to go with 11.7 points.  Frease has shown steady progress over his career and was expected to anchor the interior for the Muskies as a senior.  He made nearly 55 percent of his shots and ranked just outside of the Top 100 in defense rebounding percentage.  There is no indication of how long Frease will be out, but Xavier has relatively few big bodies with which to replace him as well as a tough early schedule.

Frease’s likely replacement would be 6-foot-9 forward Jeff Robinson who gives up three inches and about 65 pounds to Frease.  Robinson showed flashes in a limited role last year with 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds in under 17 minutes per game.  He hit nearly 58 percent from two-point range and showed that he can help out with both rebounds and blocked shots.  His 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes are a potential red flag if he is forced to play extended minutes in Frease’s absence.

The last two notable returnees are guard Brad Redford and forward Griffin McKenzie.  Redford missed last season with a knee injury but hit 42.5 percent from beyond the arc in 2009-10.  He should be on the receiving end of plenty of Holloway’s passes.  McKenzie played sparingly last year but may be thrust into action due to a lack of size on the roster.

Five other newcomers will be seeing their first action in a Xavier uniform.  Forward Travis Taylor practiced with the team last season after transferring from Monmouth, where he averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds as a sophomore.  He’ll face higher level competition in the A-10, but he should still start right away and be a key contributor for the team.

Justin Martin also practiced with the squad last year after being ruled a partial qualifier out of high school.  The 6-foot-7 forward has nice length, but his offensive game is centered around his sweet stroke from the outside.  Along with Redford, he’ll be the team’s top three-point threat.

Xavier also picked up transfer Andre Walker from Vanderbilt, who will be eligible immediately as he starts grad school.  He started for the Commodores a couple years ago but saw his playing time dwindle last season.  Walker gives the Musketeers another veteran inside to contribute primarily on the glass.

Wing Dezmine Wells is the top-rated true freshman for Xavier after being ranked in the Top 50 by multiple recruiting outlets.  He’s a tremendous athlete whose body is ready for the college game.  Wells plays with a high motor and is aggressive off the dribble, which is why one report said he “lives at the free throw line.”

The other true freshman is point guard Dee Davis, who will have the pleasure of learning from Holloway.  Despite his 5-foot-11 frame, Davis is a solid finisher who uses his quickness to get to the rim.

2011-12 Outlook

Even after losing McClain and Jackson, Xavier is the consensus pick to win the Atlantic 10 thanks to a slew of talented players ready to step in and replace them.  While the suspension of Frease doesn’t kill their hopes in the A-10, an extended absence will challenge the team given their lack of proven post options.

Frease’s early season absence will also make an already challenging schedule that much tougher.  The Muskies are participating in the Diamond Head Classic, where they open with Long Beach State and would likely face Clemson or Kansas State if they make the finals.  They also have non-conference matchups at home against Georgia, Purdue, and Cincinnati to go with road trips to Vanderbilt, Butler, and Memphis.

With Frease, Xavier has all the makings of a Top 15 squad, so it’s hard to overstate what a prolonged suspension would mean to the team.  However, the veteran backcourt of Holloway and Lyons will provide much-needed stability while the remainder of the team works out their roles.  The frontcourt will be key, but transfers Taylor and Walker should be able to team with Robinson to survive life without Frease in the short-term.  Regardless, I expect Xavier to win the A-10, which would make it six straight seasons where they have won or shared the title.

Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.

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