XU's run of three straight appearances in that distinct tournament group from 2008 to 2010 was both a trivial oddity -- "quick, name the only teams to do the following ..." -- and a testament to how strong the program had become. Thad Matta passed the reins to Sean Miller, who passed the reins to Chris Mack. It didn't matter. The Musketeers just kept rolling, a quasi mid-major that took its hoops very seriously and expected everyone else to do the same.
Xavier didn't have that kind of season in 2010-11. It was hardly a bad season; the Musketeers finished 15-1 in the Atlantic 10 and 24-7 overall before losing to eventual Sweet 16 member Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But the Muskies weren't quite their rough-and-tumble selves from the 2008-2010 years. They finished No. 41 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, the program's lowest ranking since 2006. They were good but not great. For most programs, that's OK. For Xavier, higher goals are in mind.
Which is why 2011-12 could be a very fun season.
Put simply, these Musketeers are loaded. Nearly everyone of note from last season's team -- including the team's top three scorers -- Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease -- are back in the fold. Junior reserve Jeff Robinson is ready to step into a featured role. And a solid crew of recruits, not least of which is Dezmine Wells, the No. 14-ranked small forward in the class of 2011, will jump in and provide depth and talent to an already intriguing lineup.
There's almost no way to write this without it seeming like an understatement, but Xavier's most important returning player is Holloway. After a breakout 2011 campaign -- Holloway averaged 19.7 points, 5.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game -- the guard briefly tested the NBA waters. When he found himself slotted among the mass of undersized guards ranked near the bottom half of the draft pool, he wisely decided to return to school. And X fans everywhere got very excited.
Holloway was brilliant in a variety of ways last season. His versatility is made apparent in his statistics, and his dependability -- he played the sixth-highest percentage of available minutes in the country in 2011 -- made him as reliable as any player in the country. But Holloway's real contribution is of a rarer sort: He can be almost unstoppable with the ball in his hands and a teammate running toward him.
According to Synergy scouting data, Holloway was the primary ballhandler in pick-and-roll sets on 53.5 of his possessions last season. On the 321 possessions in which Holloway received a ball screen, he scored or assisted to the tune of 328 points. That mark ranked him among the best screen-and-roll players in the country last season despite having 50 more attempts than the next closest player, South Dakota State's Nate Wolters.
Most of the players as efficient as Holloway in these sets handled the ball far less frequently, or were far less dynamic. (One good example is Ohio State's Jon Diebler.) But no player used pick-and-roll opportunities nearly as much as Holloway, and even so, few players were better.
This makes him incredibly difficult to stop. (One of the only teams to do so all season, in fact, was Marquette, whose coach Buzz Williams consulted the scouting data and constructed his entire stop-Holloway strategy in time to get the Golden Eagles that NCAA tournament win.) Holloway has the green light to attack whenever he sees daylight, and those possessions often ended with a trip to the free throw line and a pair of almost-guaranteed points from an 87 percent free throw shooter.
But Holloway was a point guard before he was a scorer. His assist rate in 2010-11 was 30.4 percent. When met with defenders, he found the open man. When teams stayed home on help, he scored or got to the free throw line. And so a 20-points-per-game scorer was born.
Remember what I said about the whole understatement thing? Exactly.
But as we saw last season, Holloway can't do it alone. He has to have help.
That help should come in a few forms. For one, Xavier's defense could stand to improve; it finished ranked No. 59 in the country in 2011, and its best player (at least statistically) was Holloway, who expends most of his energy making things happen on the offensive end.
On offense, the Musketeers -- who shot 32.9 percent from 3 last season -- could use some outside shooters. Lyons, Holloway's backcourt mate, is best operating in space off the dribble, but he wasn't a particularly good 3-point shooter last season (to the tune of 34 percent from beyond the arc). That's not horrible, but in an ideal world, Holloway would have at least one go-to sharpshooter hovering around the arc to find for open looks when the defense rotates to defend the screen-and-roll. Not having that player feels like a missed opportunity.
If Lyons doesn't significantly improve that portion of his game -- and Robinson might have room to grow here as well -- perhaps the Musketeers can find such a player among the three entering the program this fall. Xavier has been lauded for finding a gem in Wells, a versatile and athletic forward who drew scouts' raves for his intensity, defensive motor, and willingness to attack opponents off the dribble.
Darwin Davis, the No. 28-ranked point guard in the class, projects to be a lightning-quick point guard. Neither of these players is known for their 3-point shot -- in fact, both players' scouting reports list that as one of their weaknesses -- but any extra perimeter presence would surely be a plus.
Even if those prospects need a year or two before they become more than role players, the 2011-12 Xavier Musketeers remain a deep, veteran team with a bonafide star at the helm. Mack might have to find more creative ways to get Holloway his offense. He'll be hoping Lyons and Frease (the team's massive 7-foot center) make leaps beyond their previous contributions. But if things break down, the Holloway option -- someone set a screen for Tu; Tu, you go make something happen -- will always be there.
That's what happens when you have a special player: More often than not, you get special teams. It will be up to the rest of the Musketeers, veteran and rookie alike, to build the required parts around him.
If it comes together, a return trip to the Sweet 16 will be the least of Xavier's ambitions.