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Xavier has quietly been one of the best programs in the country for nearly 20 years

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The Musketeers have developed a sense of consistency not usually seen in a program which has cycled through five coaches in that time.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Tournament-Villanova vs Xavier Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With Missouri releasing their season non-conference schedule, we’re taking a brief look at each of their opponents. You can catch up with the previous posts in the series here:

Missouri quickly steps into the abyss of their road schedule when they travel to Cincinnati on November 12th to take on the Xavier Musketeers. Xavier (pronounced ZAY-vyer — unlike the Tigers Point Guard Xavier Pinson, who pronounces it EX-avier) is a private Catholic University and a member of the Big East Conference, and the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without making a Final Four and the second most appearances. This is a pain that is familiar to Missouri fans as they rank right behind Xavier in that category. Xavier has made the tournament 28 times (Behind BYU’s 29), and Missouri has 27 trips.

Both teams are looking to get back to the tournament after missing in 2019.

Much of Xavier’s success has come in the last 19 seasons when they’ve been tournament participants 16 times. During that stretch, Xavier has been through four coaching changes but keep churning. Skip Prosser left for Wake Forest, so they hired Thad Matta, who left for Ohio State. They hired Sean Miller, who left for Arizona, so they hired Chris Mack, who left for Louisville, and they then turned to their current coach, Travis Steele. In that same span, reaching back all the way to 1997, Xavier has been what KenPom.com determined to be the 25th best team in the country. For comparison’s sake, Arizona (5th), Louisville (8th) and Ohio State (11th) were better jobs, but not by a lot thanks to the coaches above.

Xavier Musketeers

Last season: 19-16, 65th in KenPom

Torvik Projection: 40

Head Coach: Travis Steele

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Xavier Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Steele was a longtime assistant to Chris Mack, who was originally hired by Sean Miller in 2008. One thing about Xavier— they like to keep it in the family. Since Thad Matta, each Xavier hire was a previous assistant under the coach who left. The continuity has helped the program sustain high level coaches leaving for other, even more elite jobs. And each subsequent coach has left the program in a better place.

The problem for Steele is the truly elite level the program achieved under Mack. He went to 9 tournaments in 10 years and escorted the program out of the mid-major Atlantic 10 conference and into the sixth power conference in the new Big East. Once they settled into the Big East, Xavier and Mack became the second most reliable program, behind only Villanova, and even earned a 1-seed before Mack left for the Louisville job.

The last Chris Mack team was a senior-laden team, so when Steele took over he was left with some younger talent but very little experience, and they struggled. You might remember a flawed Missouri team handle Xavier in Columbia last season. At one point, the Musketeers were 11-13 and looking at a forgettable year before Steele and company turned it around by winning six of their last seven games and eventually earning an NIT bid.

RETURNING PLAYERS OF NOTE:

There are going to be very familiar names for those who watched the game last season. Five players averaged double figures last year and four of them return this season, the lone departure being interior post player Zach Hankins.

  • Naji Marshall, 6’7 Jr Forward - 14.7 ppg, 7.2 rebs
  • Paul Scruggs, 6’3 Jr Guard - 12.3 ppg, 4.9 rebs
  • Tyrique Jones, 6’9 Sr Forward - 11.3 ppg, 7.7 rebs
  • Quentin Goodin, 6’4 Sr Guard - 11.0 ppg, 4.8 asts

Having four returners who averaged double figures is important, but the downside for Xavier is that they weren’t particularly efficient offensively. Against Missouri, they scored just 56 points and were ice cold from outside making just six of 19 shots. In a lot of ways they’re similar to Missouri in that fans are hoping for improved efficiency from a group of returning talent.

The talent is there, but Steele needs his guards to be better. Goodin was just a 29.8% shooter from deep last year, and Scruggs was slightly better at 37.5%, but took fewer attempts than both Goodin and Jones.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

But while the offense was bad from the outside, their strength was largely their 2-point shooting. Xavier was the 31st best team in the country inside the arc. Missouri held them to just 43.3%, which is more than 11% less than their season average. Moving the game to the Cintas Center will provide a multitude of challenges for the first road contest, and the combination of returning talent and the incoming recruiting class makes this a really tough game.

The incoming class is one with some solid developmental pieces, but the Musketeers get immediate help in the form of two grad transfers in Bryce Moore and Jason Carter. Carter graduated with two years of eligibility remaining from Ohio University and should be able to factor into the post rotation and push to extend the floor with his shooting. Moore spent last season hurt at Western Michigan, but his junior year he was a key piece for the Broncos. He should be able to supplement minutes at the point guard spot.

The last time these teams met, Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. was a problem for Xavier, as he scored a career-high 23 points and added 10 rebounds. Tilmon was so good he only needed Mark Smith and Jordan Geist to chip in 13 points each to easily get the win.

If you’re Missouri and you can win on the road against a possible NCAA tournament team, you’re already ahead of the game in the hunt for a birth in this year’s tournament. This is obviously going to be the toughest matchup for the Tigers in the early going. Both teams return most of the key pieces and finished 65th and 68th in KenPom, respectively. There’s talent, but until it all becomes realized, it’s hard to put all your chips in on either team.