How has the tension been with Cincinnati since "The Brawl?"
Our relationship with Cincinnati is like a really bad marriage in that the animosity is there long before it gets wide exposure. Xavier fans hate UC, hate their little munchkin coach, hate their hack radio guys, hate the ridiculous concept of a Bearcat, hate their pompous fans who are having to come to grips with playing in a mid-major conference now, hate that we have to play the Shootout at a neutral site, hate that we're supposed to call it the Classic now... the list goes on and on. The Brawl may have gotten the rivalry onto ESPN for a news cycle, but I've been a Xavier fan for nearly three decades and I can't remember a time at which I enjoyed anything more than I enjoy seeing X beat UC.
What has been a pleasant surprise with this year's team? What has been frustrating?
James Farr has been the most surprising of pleasant surprises. He played 42 minutes last season and it was rumored he couldn't get more burn because he wasn't flexible enough to play defense, which is code for "my man can't bend over without several minutes to prepare himself for the task." This season, he is a voracious rebounder and a microwave scorer off the bench. He has some things to work on defensively still, mainly how to play it, but I don't think anyone anticipated that he would be anything but the answer to the problem of oversigning coming into this year. The energy with which he plays the game has made him a huge fan favorite.
Frustration has stemmed from an inability to get consistent production out of anyone but Semaj and Stainbrook. Farr, junior guard Dee Davis, senior forward Isaiah Philmore, and junior wing Justin Martin all have the ability to be that vital third option for X, but each of them has a specific limitation (defensive awareness, size, no one-on-one scoring moves, and variable focus, respectively) that can take them out of sequences, entire games, or even weeks of play at a time. If Xavier can get everyone clicking at the same time, the results can be devastating (just ask UC).
What is the fans' gauge on Chris Mack? Are people happy with what he's done, or are they getting restless for more?
This changes with the weather. The fringes of the message board crowd are looking to cast a bronze statue for him outside of Cintas every time X announces a great recruiting class or gets a couple of good wins. A three-game losing streak later and they're wondering what it would take to lure Pat Kelsey away from Winthrop. You know how it is. As Mack transitions from the Tu Holloway Era into his own, I think fans recognize that he is a guy who can consistently have Xavier in Sweet 16 contention with a chance to take that next step as a program. He has a long history in the city and with the school; there's a feeling that, if anyone is going to make Xavier a destination instead of a stepping stone, it's going to be Coach Mack.
If you could have Sean Miller or Thad Matta back, which would it be and why?
Sean Miller. Thad Matta came from Butler and then jumped ship to Ohio State in what appeared to be a clear money grab. Sean Miller, on the other hand, was an assistant at Xavier first and generally felt more like one of "our guys." I felt more attached to Miller, but - for whatever reason - I felt like his move to Arizona was more forgivable. I mean, that's a landmark program, which OSU distinctly wasn't. Matta has subtly antagonized the Xavier fan base by basically never acknowledging the time he spent here and refusing to schedule the Muskies. Maybe that's why I've stayed mad at him in a way I haven't at Miller.
What has led to the most recent 3-game skid? At Villanova is understandable, but I imagine the home loss to Seton Hall was a tough pill to swallow. Are the road woes playing a role?
Aside from losing to Seton Hall at home, which is borderline unforgivable, the recent skid had a lot to do with the quality of the opponent. Xavier wasn't playing particularly well, though, and there are a couple of reasons why. The first was that it was basically Stainbrook and Christon carrying the load on offense. Dee Davis was mired in a stretch of miserable play and Justin Martin couldn't stop doing silly things to take himself out of games. That left X with little help for their two best players, and defenses quickly keyed on making life difficult for them.
The other problem was the defense. Coach Mack is a big proponent of winning on the defensive end, but Xavier's D was especially porous during that little slump. Three-point defense has been a sore spot for the Muskies, and they simply weren't keeping opponents from getting clean looks at the rim from deep. Given enough attempts, just about any college basketball team will at some point catch a hot streak. Nova and Seton Hall are both prolific three-point shooting teams, and Providence got hot at their place. That's a recipe for a three-game losing streak in which you look like an NIT team at best.
How is life in the Big East so far? Do you like playing a smaller group of teams, or do you miss the size of the A-10?
Loving it. We had a guy (or gal, hard to be sure) in our comments section point out in the run up to the Butler game that every week in the A-10 had at least one game against an opponent that bad, and you basically had to pray it didn't trip you up at some point. There were more bad losses and fewer big wins to be had in that conference. Now - with the occasional romp over a sub-par team aside - almost every game is going to be a battle. With 7 games left in the conference season, Xavier is looking at six opportunities to add some shine to their resume (sorry, DePaul). That makes for great basketball, and that's what you want to see as a fan.
Matt Stainbrook is quite a load in the paint. Are teams starting to figure him out yet?
Matt Stainbrook - or the Stain Train, as Xavier fans have dubbed him basically since day one - is definitely a big man, but his game has a distinct element of finesse to it. He does have a couple of weaknesses that teams are picking up on right now. The first is a tendency to want to dribble when double-teamed; that often leads to a turnover. The other is a reliance on scoring moves to his left hand. He is insanely deft in getting to his left hand anyway, though, and has found ways to score against single defenders even if they shade him that way. When he doesn't over-dribble, he can really pick apart defenses with his court vision and laser-rocket arm. He's had a few ups and downs lately, but the dude is a joy to watch play and a huge asset to the team.
Why doesn't Semaj Christon take more 3-pointers? He's hitting 45% from the perimeter, but has only taken 39 3-pointers this year.
Aside from a couple of threes off the bounce early in the year, the only reason Semaj shoots the three is to make his man guard him out there. If his defender wants to stand 15 feet from the bucket and dare Semaj to hit from deep, he can do it (in contrast to last year, when he shot 25% from out there). As long as his man plays him honestly, though, Christon is better served to put the ball on the deck and force the action. So I guess the answer to your question is that he doesn't shoot more threes because his skill set is currently pretty effective at getting him closer to the basket.
Is this team better suited to play man or zone on defense?
Neither, kind of. At the 1, 2, and 3 (depending on if Justin Martin has his mind right), we can man up and do pretty well. Martin is also a plus rebounder for a wing, which is a nice bonus. Dee Davis is a decent on-ball defender who excels when being told to make someone's life difficult off the ball. Semaj is a hugely improved on-ball defender, which is good, because he occasionally has positioning problems off the ball if he doesn't have something specific to do. The big men - Philmore, Stainbrook, and Farr - are all not blessed with lateral mobility or exceptional athleticism, though, which makes a straight man a potentially risky proposition.
The frontcourt comes down to bench players. If reserve forwards Erik Stenger - a ball of energy who missed extended time with a mysterious stomach ailment - and Jalen Reynolds - an incredibly athletic power forward who is seldom not fouling someone - are reliably available, the frontcourt suddenly has a couple of guys to roll through there who can make everything work. Getting meaningful minutes out of those two guys is an underrated key for this team going forward.
Projected seed for the dance?
Gun to my head right now I'd say they end up a 7, but I'd really like to see them pick up a couple of big wins and get out of that 7-10 seed range. I feel like the potential 3 v 6 second game is a lot more comfortable than the 2 v 7 one.