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UConn men’s basketball 2022-23 opponent preview: Xavier

Controversial head coach Sean Miller is back in Cincinnati and inherits a deep and talented roster.

Syndication: The Enquirer Joshua A. Bickel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Fast Facts

Head Coach: Sean Miller (first season, sort of, as head coach)

2021-22 Record: 23-13 (8-11 Big East)

2021-22 Big East finish: Seventh

Final 2021-22 Ranking: No. 53

2022-23 Big East Coaches Poll Ranking: Second

2022-23 KenPom Rating: No. 38

2021-22 Review

For the last 20 years, it has been amazing to watch Xavier basketball create continuity from instability. Deep runs in March were always followed by the coach leaving for greener pastures. But from Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, the Musketeers always seemed to nail their replacement, all of which were from within. No matter how inexperienced the then-assistant was, Xavier eventually reloaded. It felt like the Jesse Pinkman GIF in Breaking Bad:

Alas, Xavier’s assistant coaching tree was bound to produce a weak branch at some point.

Travis Steele brought in talent and was a likable enough guy, but he never got the program to the NCAA Tournament in his four years at the helm. The final straw was last year. The Musketeers were 11-1 on Dec. 18, with wins over Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. They looked downright scary and a legitimate threat to Villanova. They then proceeded to drop eight of their last 10 games and stumble into the NIT. While Xavier gathered itself and won the event, it was clear that Steele wasn’t maximizing the considerable talent on his roster. He was canned in March.

Facing an NCAA Tournament drought of four years — unheard of for such a basketball-rich program— Xavier sold their soul and brought back embattled former coach Sean Miller, the three-time Pac 12 Coach of the Year who left Arizona with his tail between his legs in April of 2021 amid rampant corruption allegations. In Miller, the Muskies are now banking on a different type of continuity to help them reload again.

2022-2023 Outlook

Miller coached at Xavier from 2004 to 2009, compiling a record of 120–47 to go with three tickets to the Big Dance and one Elite Eight appearance. For his second go-round, he inherits a talented, experienced team that will challenge for Big East supremacy and is equipped to go far in March. The Muskies were picked second in the Big East preseason coaches poll, a surprise but not a shock, given the roster makeup. Like UConn, they received votes for the first AP Top 25 poll.

There is considerable inside-out balance on the team, with seven-foot center Jack Nunge as the quintessential stretch big and 6-foot-6 junior combo guard Colby Jones as a well-rounded perimeter presence. Pair those two preseason all-Big East talents with interior bruiser Zach Freemantle and floor-spacing upperclassman Adam Kunkel, and the offensive end has firepower up and down the roster. Look for Jones — named the NIT’s most valuable player — to step right into the alpha role vacated by Paul Scruggs.

Nunge’s range makes him a nightmare for someone like Adama Sanogo; the Iowa transfer poured in 33 points and 16 rebounds in the two games vs. the Huskies last year. He finished the year 18th nationally in offensive rating and shot 36 percent from 3-point range.

Between Nunge and Kunkel, another plus-35% shooter from downtown, there’s pace and space throughout the roster, and Miller is still one of college’s best in-game coaches. His challenge will be on the defensive end, where Nunge can get exposed if dragged away from the paint, and point guard, where the Muskies lack a pass-first distributor.

Miller also added Souley Boum in the transfer portal, a 6-foot-3 grad transfer that averaged almost 20 points per game at UTEP. Also keep an eye on freshmen Desmond Claude and Kam Kraft, two 6-foot-5 guards that should be able to guard and hit shots right away as top-100 freshmen.

Bottom Line

You can’t deny the roster structure; Xavier can beat you inside with Freemantle and Nunge, provided the former isn’t being a knucklehead. They can catch fire from outside with Kunkel, and Jones’ shot demands respect. There is size on the perimeter and upperclassmen who are hungry after a taste of postseason ball. Miller is the type of coach to put all of that together. But can Musketeers defend at a rate that lets their offense go to work?

There’s also the stigma of Xavier choking away NCAA tournament berths; the program has bowed out in the first round of the Big East tournament the last three years, which is an underperformance for the talent on the roster. That sort of midseason reversal sticks with a fanbase; Xavier can come out of the gates undefeated and fans will still be bracing for the conference collapse.