Analysis: A look at the 4-0 start for the Xavier Musketeers, MVP, most improved and more

Adam Baum
Cincinnati Enquirer

Xavier's men's basketball program breaks each game down into 10 four-minute wars.

The more wars the Musketeers win, the greater the probability they'll like the result at the end of 40 minutes.

It's a simple solution to break a game down into smaller parts, focusing on 10 smaller battles as a way to win the big battle.

In that same vein, after every four-game stretch over the course of Xavier's season, The Enquirer will take a look at what happened over those four games, assign awards, and assess where the Musketeers stand in their pursuit of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.

Xavier Musketeers guard Paul Scruggs (1) hits a layup around Kent State Golden Flashes forward Justyn Hamilton (21) in the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Kent State Golden Flashes on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

The first war

Record: 4-0

After a four-game homestand to start the season, the Musketeers find themselves at 4-0 without Zach Freemantle, who could arguably be their best player. Xavier has led without trailing in three of its first four games. 

Xavier started slow in the opener against Niagara, found some adjustments that worked against Kent State, put together 40 minutes of complete basketball against Ohio State, and shot the Cintas Center lights out in Sunday's win over Norfolk State

Most importantly, the Musketeers improved over the first four and showed the ability to string together positive performances from one game to the next. If those two things can be the main threads that hold this season together then Xavier will like where the next four months take them. 

Xavier Musketeers guard Paul Scruggs (1) reacts after sinking a three point shot in the first half of the NCAA basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Norfolk State Spartans at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Xavier led 45-16 at halftime.

Most valuable player

Paul Scruggs

Scruggs took over the first three games the way Xavier was hoping its fifth-year senior would. Xavier probably wouldn't be 4-0 right now if not for Scruggs. 

His defense has set the tone for the Musketeers and his steady presence offensively has changed a number of games at crucial moments. 

Scruggs is averaging team-highs in points (15.8) per game, assists (4.0) and steals (2.0). He's also averaging 5.5 rebounds. 

He's been vocal and led by example. 

"He just wills us," Xavier head coach Travis Steele said, and that's a good way to summarize the first four games. 

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Xavier Musketeers guard Colby Jones (3) cheers as guard Paul Scruggs (1) is sent to the free throw line in the final seconds of the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Xavier defeated the 19-ranked Buckeyes, 71-65.

Most improved 

Colby Jones

The 6-foot-6 sophomore from Birmingham, Alabama, is on the doorstep of averaging a double-double with 13.0 points and a Big East Conference-leading 9.5 rebounds a game. His instincts and situational awareness are off the charts, and he's already proven a willingness to take over a game when necessary. 

Jones does it at both ends of the floor and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. There's a reason he's leading Xavier in minutes per game (30.8). 

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Best play

It should come as no surprise that this distinction belongs to Scruggs. His game-sealing dunk with 25 seconds left against Ohio State will go down as one of the best exclamation marks on a win in Cintas Center history. 

Xavier Musketeers guard Paul Scruggs (1) drives and dunks over Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) in the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Xavier defeated the 19-ranked Buckeyes, 71-65.

Scruggs had some help to make it happen, too. Jack Nunge set a perfect high-ball screen that freed Scruggs up to get downhill and ashe was working towards the basket, Jones sealed off E.J. Liddell in the lane so Scruggs could get to the rim, and once he got there, Scruggs finished it with a furious left-handed slam over Liddell that sent Cintas over the edge. 

Rotations

Steele has stuck to a pretty tight eight-man rotation, although that wasn't the case Sunday against Norfolk State because as the score ballooned in Xavier's favor, Ben Stanley saw his first minutes after a torn ACL ended last season in January, freshman Cesare Edwards saw his first playing time in a Xavier uniform, and KyKy Tandy made his first appearance of the season. 

Xavier Musketeers forward Jack Nunge (24) dunks in the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Norfolk State Spartans at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Xavier remained unbeaten on the season with an 88-48 win over the Spartans.

Adam Kunkel, Dwon Odom and Nunge have all started to settle in off the bench. Nunge's proven incredibly valuable around the basket at both ends. Kunkel finally flashed some serious sniper tendencies on Sunday with an 8-for-10 performance from 3-point range in a 26-point outing. Odom's been a little more up and down, but his athleticism and playmaking change Xavier in a pretty dramatic way when he's on the floor. 

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When Freemantle returns in early December, the Musketeers will move to a nine-man rotation and the starting lineup will obviously get a little shakeup. 

Steele said recently during a press conference that Freemantle will play the four and the five when he returns. 

Xavier Musketeers forward Zach Freemantle (32), right, signals one and one from the bench while sitting out due to a foot surgery in the second half of the NCAA men's basketball game on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati. Xavier Musketeers defeated Kent State Golden Flashes 73-59.

Biggest questions

The most obvious question is: what happens when Freemantle returns? It shouldn't be overly hard to answer. Freemantle's really good, a preseason first-team All-Big East selection and the reigning most improved player in the conference. But it may take a few games to smooth everything out and it may take even longer until Freemantle feels like himself again. Freemantle's been out since early August and he's coming off foot surgery, so it may not be a seamless transition for the junior forward. 

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It makes such a difference when perimeter shots are falling, a situation Xavier's really only experienced once this season. Going into Sunday, Xavier was shooting below 24% from 3-point range. The Musketeers shot 45% against Norfolk State. That's a pretty inflated improvement, but a big question to answer is: can Xavier make the 3-point line a weapon instead of a flaw? The Musketeers don't have to shoot 45% every game, but they're capable of living higher than where they currently are (30%). 

Strengths and weaknesses

The greatest strength through four games has been Xavier's defense. The Musketeers are allowing 58.0 points per game and their two-point field-goal percentage defense (36%) ranks third in the nation among all 358 Division I teams, according to KenPom.com. 

A close second to the defense would be Xavier's overall mentality. The Musketeers have made adjustments with their ball-screen coverages and they've run more set plays on offense. Xavier showed growth over the first part of the season and they got better from one game to the next. If that trend continues then it will be a change from recent years that were more of a one-step-forward, two-step-backward ordeal.  

The Musketeers have rebounded the ball. Xavier is plus-48 on the boards through four games and its offensive rebounding percentage is No. 39 nationally. Three players on Xavier's roster – Jones, Nunge, Jerome Hunter – are averaging more than 7.0 rebounds a game. 

Xavier's built to compete. The Musketeers have a lot of guys who can different things and impact the game in different ways. It's already evident four games in, that Xavier has a handful of players who are capable of stepping up on a given night. 

One unexpected weakness early on has been turnovers. Xavier has an experienced backcourt that's familiar with the system. The Musketeers are averaging 14.3 turnovers per game, something Steele's spoken recently about addressing. Possessions are too important and Xavier has too many weapons offensively to be careless with the ball. 

The best news for Xavier is at this moment, there aren't a ton of glaring weaknesses. There are little things like individual consistency with shooters missing open looks or taking better shots, Odom struggling at times off the bench, and Dieonte Miles getting into foul trouble too easily. In spite of those things, Xavier's found ways to win games. 

Where they stand

The Big East is off to a great start. It looks like there should be a lot of opportunities in the conference slate to pick up quality wins, but it could be a gauntlet. 

Xavier's upset of No. 19 Ohio State gives the Musketeers a marquee win that they can build a resume around, and there are opportunities on the horizon to add more.

Xavier should be pleased with the start. The Musketeers jumped into the Associated Press top-25 this week at No. 25. 

Up next

Xavier will head on the road for the first time this season with a pair of neutral-site games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on Wednesday and Friday in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Musketeers open Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Iowa State and then Friday they'll play either No. 9 Memphis or No. 27 Virginia Tech.

After that, it's back home against Central Michigan on Dec. 1, followed by a trip to Oklahoma State on Dec. 5 in the Big East-Big 12 Battle.