When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, UConn athletics will be back where they belong in the Big East. Of course, this Big East isn’t exactly the same as when the Huskies were last members, so we caught up with writers who cover those schools to get the lowdown on how things are going.
For this edition, Brad Dobney, a manager at Banners on the Parkway, SB Nation’s Xavier site, took some time to answer our questions on the new conference and Xavier basketball.
Note: these questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
What have the last seven years been like without UConn in the Big East?
Starting with the loaded question, I see. I’m in my late 30s, so it is disingenuous for me to say that the new look Big East is exactly what I think of when I reminisce about the Big East. I think Syracuse, Pitt, Boston College, and UConn. The teams before the come one, come all bloat of 2005. That said, the Big East now is still one of the premier conferences in college basketball, consistently has great teams come out of it for the NCAA tournament, and has mostly dumped the detritus that weighed it down. What has it been like without UConn? Like a great basketball conference.
What was your fanbase’s reaction to the news that UConn was rejoining the Big East?
Almost completely positive. There is some concern about the length of the conference schedule now or if this would lead to a change of the home and home format that works so well, but those issues have been addressed. There really aren’t negatives to adding another quality game to the slate.
Aside from renewing old rivalries, one of the biggest perks of the Big East is an easier travel schedule for both teams and fans. Assuming it’s safe to travel come college basketball season, what do Huskies fans need to know about your arena(s)? Any restaurants/bars/destinations you recommend?
The Cintas is a great place to catch a game. It’s big enough to bring a sense of occasion without having that feeling of empty space that is part and parcel of having a massive arena. As far as what to do in Cincinnati the simple truth is that I’m not an expert on that. The only time I’ve been in the city at all in the last two decades is for Xavier games. I’m a Cleveland boy through and through. Joel, the other managing editor, lives in Columbus. We both chose places for college more suited to our skill level (read: NAIA) and remain die hard fans of the school without having actually attended there. (I did get accepted, but was unable to convince incoming coach Thad Matta that what he really needed was a 5-9 shooting guard that couldn’t really shoot.)
What’s your opinion on Skyline Chili?
Our editorial position on Skyline Chili is that it is possibly the only food improved by a trip through the digestive system.
Outside of last year’s thriller in Charleston, Xavier and UConn really haven’t crossed paths much lately, but the Huskies have dealt with the Musketeers’ biggest rival, Cincinnati, all too often. What’s that rivalry like, and what makes Xavier different from UC both as a school and as a basketball program?
The Crosstown Shootout is an actual rivalry. It’s not a made for tv Duke-UNC thing where the players prattle on about respect and generally act more like a fencing match is about to take place. It’s not OSU-Michigan where there’s really no tension because one football program really hasn’t been relevant for 15 years. This is the real thing. Violence happens in this game routinely. Everyone remembers The Brawl, but tension always runs high. Mick Cronin tried to punch JP Macura and had to be physically restrained from attacking him after the game, Dante Jackson threw a Bearcat against a basket stanchion, technical fouls are to be expected. There is genuine animus in this game. That carries over into every other facet of the universities as well. There is no good natured banter about graduation rates, or which side of town someone is from. The knives are always out.
What makes Xavier different now is that they have the swagger. Edmond Sumner dunking on Octavious Ellis on the 12th of December of 2015 changed that for good. For years it had been UC that could rely on being in the bigger conference or having more recent success. They taunted Xavier as the “little brother.” That’s just not the case anymore. While the Bearcats flounder away in a mid-major conference, the Musketeers are reaching new levels both academically and athletically. What makes Xavier different is that it is a clear first choice in the city.
Xavier played one of the last college basketball games of the year, an opening round Big East tournament game against DePaul on March 11 at around 9:30 p.m. ET. That was the night everything started to really snowball - what was it like watching that game - an important one, no less - knowing that things were being cancelled and changing by the second?
We actually just wrote a piece on our reactions to that night. Our writing staff is composed of all brothers, so we communicate a lot. As that game went on and especially as the news rolled in after it, we were all completely unsure how to proceed. It was strange to watch a game and not know if it mattered a lot or not at all. As it became clear that Xavier was set on self-sabotage I found myself torn between the usual impotent rage that comes with avoidable March losses and a strange kind of terribly sad apathy. I wrote the recap that night unsure exactly what I was recapping.
Even during the pandemic, Travis Steele added two interesting transfers that should be able to serve as useful compliments to the rest of the lineup right away. Will 3-point specialist Nate Johnson from Gardner Webb and DII rebounding extraordinaire Bryan Griffin be able to remain role players or be asked to do even more?
I really, really hope we get to find out. Johnson can clearly shoot the ball. His 41% last year came despite having to fight through a mid season injury and the moving of the three point line. Maybe even more importantly, he can defend. Xavier finished last season with the 20th ranked defense, but they were very uneven all season long. Allowing 1.18 points per possession to a mediocre Providence offense in a must win game was probably the low point. A consistent defender helps that. Xavier’s last D2 transfer was Zach Hankins, and he was amazing. He raised the roof like he was born in the 80s after dunks, shot a super nice 69% from the floor, and blocked shots really well. Can Griffin reprise that? I honestly have no idea. It’s so hard to project someone making that jump. Travis Steele nailed it once though, so there is reason to believe he can do it again.
Naji Marshall was a problem for the Huskies in last year’s matchup, but he declared for the NBA Draft early. Between his departure and Tyrique Jones graduating, that’s a loss of over 30 points a game. Who is expected to step up and take over as the Musketeer’s main scoring options this season?
KyKy Tandy. Tandy is an 6-2 guard who once cut his chin on the rim during an in-game dunk. His. Chin. He can score at all three levels, he is careful with the ball, and he’s electric. If he stays healthy, he’ll be Xavier’s go to guy.
Unless Paul Scruggs is. Scruggs missed Xavier’s last three games of the season. If he had played, they would have won them all and been a tournament lock. That’s what he means to the team. He’s nails tough and afraid of absolutely no one. (He’s also marched in protests and recorded part of a video put out by the university that addresses a lot of social issues. He’s an impressive guy.) Scruggs hit Florida for 24 and Wake Forest for 30. He’s a respectable three point shooter and loves to play bully ball if he gets a smaller guard on him. Xavier also has a top 20 recruiting class coming in and in Jason Carter, a junior who averaged 16.5 points just two years ago.
After years of sustained success under Thad Matta, Sean Miller and Chris Mack, Steel is 38-29 in his two seasons as head coach. Two years in, are Xavier fans confident Steele can continue to build the program and take Xavier to its first ever Final Four at some point?
No, they aren’t. That’s the nature of fandom though. Steele got a roster that returned a single starter and essentially none of the scoring from the best team in program history and had to try to patch holes that the departing Coach Mack hadn’t bothered to address in recruiting. Last season was expected to be a step forward, but then Quentin Goodin regressed enormously, Naji Marshall suffered a maddening series of inopportune turnovers, Bryce Moore, Daniel Ramsey, Paul Scruggs, and KyKy Tandy all missed significant time through injury, and Dah Bishop got homesick and left. That left Steele holding the bag on an inconsistent team and a fanbase that would not have countenanced missing the tournament again. He’s probably got one more year to demonstrate he’s the right guy, or X will be coach shopping.