Final Four darkhorse Xavier poised for next step

By Shannon Russell, USA Sports // Source MSN Sports

Final Four darkhorse Xavier poised for next step

CINCINNATI — The Xavier men’s basketball team racked up record after record last season before falling to Wisconsin on a buzzer-beater in the NCAA tournament, so there’s plenty of unfinished business for coach Chris Mack and the Musketeers heading into this season.

The biggest question centers on the status of senior Myles Davis. The guard is serving an indefinite suspension from the program after two misdemeanor criminal damaging charges relating to a former girlfriend.

Davis, the only senior who has played his entire career as a Musketeer, had carved out a role as a leader with a strong vocal presence. Since he averaged 10.8 points and team-high 4.1 assists last season, the uncertainty regarding his return creates questions about Xavier’s backcourt.

Mack announced Davis’ suspension in September.

“Playing basketball for Xavier is a privilege, and we have high expectations for how our student-athletes represent our university,” Mack says. “Unless Myles meets those expectations, he will not be a part of our team.”

The good news for Xavier is that there’s talent across the board beyond Davis.

Top scorer and all-Big East first-team pick Trevon Bluiett (15.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is back for his junior season, joining sophomore point guard Edmond Sumner (11 ppg, 3.6 apg) — a unanimous all-Big East freshman team choice — and junior guard J.P. Macura (9.4 ppg). Conference coaches tabbed Macura as the Big East sixth man of the year.

The team lost a great deal of rebounding with the graduations of James Farr and Jalen Reynolds, and other offseason personnel moves added to its new look. Guard Larry Austin Jr. transferred to Vanderbilt for more playing time. Forward Makinde London departed for Chattanooga to be closer to home.

Eddie Ekiyor, a 6-8 forward, arrived at Xavier for the second semester last year and practiced with the team but in the offseason decided to return home to Canada and attend Carleton University. Ekiyor was mired in off-the-court matters surrounding a hit-and-run he pleaded guilty to in March in Ottawa.

Xavier also lost guard Remy Abell to graduation but gained assets in freshmen Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones as well as graduate student Malcolm Bernard. Goodin, a 6-4 guard and four-star recruit, will bring depth to the backcourt with his speed and ability to attack the rim.

Jones provides bulk and strength in the post, where he will benefit from the tutelage of 6-9 RaShid Gaston, who transferred from Norfolk State and has one season of eligibility left. He showed his ability to use his body and power in the paint at practice during his sit-out season.

The frontcourt also features Sean O’Mara and Kaiser Gates, two players who provided increased support as last season progressed. O’Mara’s size (6-10, 245 pounds) and growing confidence made him a bruiser inside, while Gates, a 6-8 forward, showed his offensive versatility from the rim to the three-point line.

Add to the mix Bernard, a Florida A&M transfer who joined the team in July. The 6-6 player essentially will fill the role of Ekiyor as a small forward. He led the Rattlers in points (14.4) and rebounds (7.1) in 2015-16 and could be a key to restocking Xavier’s rebounding game.

“I’m happy to be a Musketeer and I’m glad I’m getting to spend my last year at Xavier,” Bernard says. “I’m coming to work with the best and play with the best and win with the best.”

Mack led last year’s team to a 28-6 record and second-place Big East finish (14-4) behind national champion Villanova. The 28 wins tied for second most in program history. The 14 Big East victories marked a school record, as did a No. 9 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

Xavier ascended as high as No. 5 in that poll and No. 4 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll. The team started last season with a bang, winning the AdvoCare Invitational in Florida in November, and had quite a few highlights en route to March — including a defeat of freshly minted No. 1 Villanova at Cintas Center in February.

This year, the Musketeers’ biggest early-season tests might be at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where they start against Missouri on Nov. 17. Xavier travels to Baylor and Colorado and hosts Wake Forest in the Skip Prosser Classic. It rounds out the non-conference schedule at Cincinnati in the Jan. 26 Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout.

The Big East grinder starts Dec.28 against Providence.

Mack, who received a one-year contract extension in the offseason that takes him through 2021-22, remains Xavier’s only national coach of the year winner. But he and the Musketeers are not resting on any laurels as they strive for a Final Four berth.

“We are proud of what this team achieved this season but are not satisfied,” Mack says. “We have lofty goals.”

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