With no Wells, can Xavier find the magic?

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
6:25
PM ET
For years, sun-kissed would have been the perfect way to describe the Xavier men’s basketball team. Coaches came and coaches went on to bigger jobs and yet the Musketeers remained a model of consistency, growing into a March dynamo that failed to make the NCAA tournament just once since 2000.

In the last year, Xavier has been a whole lot more thunderstruck than sun-kissed. From silly (Chris Mack injured his knee dunking in practice) to serious (the brawl with Cincinnati), the one-time paragon of stability has been rocked with bad news.

The latest came on Tuesday afternoon with news that sophomore Dez Wells, who would have been X's leading returning scorer this season, has been expelled by the university.

That leaves Mack without his top five scorers from last season: Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Andre Walker all graduated and Mark Lyons decided to transfer in April, landing at Arizona.

So there are points to find -- lots of them, in fact -- and no one necessarily to score them for one of the most consistent winners in the Atlantic 10. The top returning scorers now (Travis Taylor, Jeff Robinson, Justin Martin and Brad Redford) combined to average 14.2 points per game last season -- or 3.3 less than Holloway and 0.9 less than Lyons.

That would be a hard hill to climb in any season in the A-10. Lucky Chris Mack. He gets to retool his entire roster in the same year that the league decides to invite VCU and Butler to the fold.

In a cruel twist of irony, Xavier just might miss the NCAA field for the first time since 2005 in the same year that its athletic director, Mike Bobinski, serves as selection committee chair.

What’s going to be interesting here is to see how X regroups. This is a program accustomed to winning and winning big fairly easily. Just how these players, who have done nothing yet but were recruited on the gravy train of success, responds will be telling.

The only glimmer of light? The Musketeers did it last season. Xavier was ranked as high as No. 8 in the country early last year and then watched its entire season disappear under the weight and embarrassment of the fight with Cincinnati. Holloway, their team leader, was a shadow of himself and the Muskies reeled with five losses in six games after the brawl.

I watched an Xavier practice last season in the midst of that downward spiral. The body language was awful and at times, the real language was even worse.

But I came away impressed with how Mack was dealing with it all. He pushed, screamed and cajoled, depending on the circumstance and the player, and meted out punishment instead of accepting backtalk.

Slowly if not always surely, Xavier righted what looked like a lost season, gaining steam in the Atlantic 10 tournament and then rolling to its fourth Sweet 16 appearance in five years.

That group of players, senior-laden and experienced, was able to turn thunderstruck into sun-kissed.

But can these Musketeers do the same?

That’s the big question now.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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