Xavier worries about defense ahead of Oakland opener

NCAA Men's Basketball

Xavier shouldn’t have much trouble scoring this season. Stopping its opponents from doing the same could be another issue.

The Musketeers will see what they have when they host Oakland in Cincinnati to open the season Wednesday.

“Our guys know what’s at stake,” said Xavier coach Travis Steele. “They know how fragile this is.”

That fragility includes the thing every other program is facing — the COVID-19 pandemic — but the Musketeers are trying to stay focused on the court. Xavier, coming off a 19-13 season, is picked to finish seventh in the Big East.

Senior guard Paul Scruggs is the top returning scorer (12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists per game) from a squad that averaged 70.7 points and shot 43.6 percent from the field.

Zach Freemantle (7.5 ppg) and Jason Carter (6.9 ppg) also return for a team Steele believes should score more than it did last season. However, he’s uncertain if his Musketeers will be as stout defensively as last season when they allowed an average of 67.6 points (fourth in the Big East) and 40.8 percent shooting.

“We’re going be able to score this year,” Steele said.

“We’ve got a lot of shooting, a lot of firepower. But we’ve got to be good on (the defensive end). We cannot let our defense slip and just become a good offensive team. We’ve got to be able to rely on our defense to be competitive night in and night out in the Big East.”

Xavier won’t have to worry about the Big East for a while. Instead, the focus is improving to 5-0 all-time against Oakland. Scruggs had 10 points with five rebounds, four assists and three steals during the Musketeers’ 73-63 home win over the Grizzlies in December 2018.

Oakland, which finished 14-19 last season, is picked to finish sixth in the Horizon League as voted on by the conference’s coaches and media. However, the Grizzlies do boast one of the league’s top players in Rashad Williams, who averaged 19.5 points in 15 games after he was cleared to play in January, following a transfer from Cleveland State.

“Me jumping in the middle of the season last year, not knowing if I was going to be cleared to play or not, it put a toll on my mental health,” Williams told The Oakland Post.

“Coach (Greg Kampe) and my teammates, they gave me confidence to do what I needed to make sure I was confident.”

Oakland, which is hoping to find more consistent offense after scoring just 67.8 points per contest and shooting a dismal 29.6 percent from 3-point range in 2019-20, has dropped its last 11 games against Big East opponents. That 2018 contest against Xavier was its most recent Big East foe.

–Field Level Media

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