Xavier entered the season knowing one thing: in most matchups on most days, they would have the best player on the floor. Zach Freemantle was Xavier’s All Big East, team leading scorer, team leading rebounder, human cheat code. When all went south, throw the ball to Zach and let him work. Then, Xavier discovered that for at least six games, that security blanket would be gone. The offensive focal point of a team that struggled on offense would be missing and no obvious replacement was available.
For at least three games that wouldn’t be a problem. Almost no matter who Xavier ran out they were going to beat Niagara, Kent State, and Norfolk State. X proved that all division one basketball talent matters in two of those games, but they ultimately ran out of the gym with three wins in those three games. It was in the other three games, Ohio State, Iowa State, and whoever they got second in the preseason NIT, that the Musketeers would miss their best player. How they did in those games would determine the success of their early non-conference slate.
To win those games the Musketeers would have to get other contributions and also get great coaching. The first test was Ohio State. In that game Travis Steele schooled Chris Holtmann, Paul Scruggs came up big when it mattered, and Jack Nunge announced himself to the Musketeers faithful. One big game without Freemantle down, one likely Q1 win in the books.
That brings us to Thanksgiving. If there is one holiday where the dreaded “flu like symptoms” can bring down the entire proceeding, it’s Thanksgiving. Xavier entered 4-0, ranked, and climbing in the computer systems. Both games they played in New York wuld likely have resume implications come March. The first, Iowa State, was likely the lesser. The second would almost certainly be another Q1 game.
There was a serious problem though, Xavier got sick. Against ISU it was Adam Kunkel who couldn’t play and Paul Scruggs and Jerome Hunter who were seriously hampered. Iowa State is currently 79th on the Torvik ratings and 76th in the KP. Decent, but a team that a healthy Xavier would beat. Xavier wasn’t healthy, though, and they didn’t beat them. The ravages of the flu told as the Musketeers simply couldn’t defend well enough to slow the Cyclones or score enough to stay with them.
That left the game against Virginia Tech as the one that would decide Xavier’s time without Freemantle. Win, and it was two Q1 wins in two chances. Lose, and great chances would go begging, leaving Xavier with one big win and a trip to New York wasted. Unfortunately, Xavier was going to play that Va Tech game with just seven scholarship players.
What that required was a change of plans. Xavier played their slowest pace of the season against the Hokies. That was noticeable in the way the Musketeers moved the ball on offense and pressed on defense. The point of Coach Steele deploying the shell 2-2-1 press was to slow the pace so his team, which was taking turns vomiting in trash cans near the bench, wouldn’t have to run too much.
The other thing that Steele did to assure a slower pace and prevent the kind of runs that can decide games was completely surrender the offensive glass. Xavier grabbed only two of their own misses last night. That wasn’t because Jack Nunge wasn’t working or because Ben Stanley can’t get on the glass, but because they were shooting and then immediately dropping back on defense. As a result of that, Tech never went on a run of more than eight points. Easy offense just wasn’t there for them.
By the end of 40 minutes a flu ravaged Musketeers team had held on, just, for a second Q1 win. That was largely down to the talents of Nate Johnson, the mental toughness of the team, and the scheme that kept them in it. Xavier may not have outplayed Tech, but they did outcoach and out-tough them.
What that means is that Xavier emerges from their time without Zach Freemantle as a team with a legitimate March resume. The Musketeers have two Q1 wins (for now), they beat a very good Ohio State team, they hammered Norfolk State, and they are top 40 in both major computer systems. Zach Freemantle is back now, and he walks back into a team that more than held their own without him.