NCAA Tournament Sleeper Pick: Sean Miller’s Xavier Musketeers

Favored to win the Big East, Xavier has odds up to +1000 for its first Final Four appearance
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As far as second acts at a school in college basketball go, few were anticipated and scrutinized more than Sean Miller’s return to Xavier in March.

A mostly successful 12-season run at Arizona ended in messy fashion with his firing in April 2021 amid allegations of high-level NCAA violations as part of a wide-ranging scandal in the sport that began in 2017. During the following season, the Musketeers program he helped sustain in Cincinnati following Skip Prosser and Thad Matta hit a rut, with Travis Steele failing to carry the torch as effectively as Chris Mack did upon taking over from Miller in 2009.

Though the NCAA did not find that Miller had committed any violations, there was a public hand-wringing over Xavier quickly turning around to re-hire him after his one-year absence from the sidelines. The only tangible consequence, it appeared, was Miller having to vacate 50 total victories and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2017 and 2018 for using ineligible players connected to the scandal.

Miller’s return to Xavier, however, is quickly proving to be a success for both him and the eighth-ranked Musketeers, who are 15-4 and lead the Big East nearing the halfway point ahead of Saturday’s home game versus Georgetown. With March Madness expected be wide open this year, Xavier could offer plenty of sports wagering value thanks to an elite offense that will travel.

The Boum from the backcourt

All legitimate Final Four teams have elite guard play, and Xavier fits that description thanks to combo guard Souley Boum. The 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior, who played at UTEP for three seasons after spending his 2017-18 freshman season at San Francisco, does whatever is needed on the court for the Musketeers.

Boum is averaging 16.9 points, 4.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.4 steals while shooting 42.9% from 3-point range. He has effortlessly slotted into Miller’s up-tempo offense, with his assist-to-turnover ratio nearly doubling from last season to 2.7-to-1. Boum is surrounded by strong players at Xavier and doesn’t need to be a volume scorer like he had to at UTEP, but he is an aggressive scorer — his 47.1% shooting percentage this season is easily on pace to eclipse his career best of 41% set last season.

While Boum racks up the accolades as the team’s leader and go-to option, sleep on backcourt partner Colby Jones at your own risk. The junior is averaging 14 points, 5.3 assists, and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 40% from beyond the arc. Though Jones’ offensive rebounding numbers are down compared to 2021-22, he’s grabbing fewer partly because Xavier’s 49.8% overall shooting rate is nearly five points better than last season.

The Musketeers also have frontcourt bang for the buck on the offensive end with Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle, who average 14.8 and 14.6 points, respectively. Freemantle has been highly effective as opponents need to respect the 7-foot Nunge’s presence in the low block, shooting 57.8% while pulling down a team-best 8.3 rebounds per game. Nunge is right behind him at 8.1 caroms per contest and also has the ability to step out to the 3-point arc, hitting 22-of-53 (41.5%) from deep.

Adam Kunkel, who averages 10.4 points, rounds out the starting five and is one of those players you love if he’s on your team and loathe if playing against him. The senior is a walking intangible of sorts, helping move the ball offensively with 2.5 assists per game while shooting 38% from 3-point range.

Miller usually goes about eight deep with his rotation, as Jerome Hunter, Desmond Claude, and KyKy Tandy are the top options off the bench. The 6-foot-8 Hunter has picked up his play of late, scoring in double figures in five of his last seven games to boost his scoring average to 5.7 and is shooting 60.6% overall. Claude is the only freshman seeing notable minutes, averaging 3.3 points and 1.8 assists while adding 15 steals in 19 contests.

What’s to like and dislike about the Musketeers

Simply put, the offense cooks. Xavier leads the Big East in scoring at 83.5 points per game, which is also good for 13th among Division I teams. They are seventh in the country in offensive efficiency per KenPom at 117 points per 100 possessions and get up and down the floor, with the 72.4 possessions comfortably inside KenPom’s top 20.

The Musketeers share the ball, racking up assists on 67.5% of their field goals, and lead the nation in assists at 20.6 per contest. They are an above-average 3-point shooting team at 39% while showing good shot discipline and boast a top-15 effective field goal rate at 55.7%. Despite playing up-tempo, they are not careless, averaging non-steal turnovers on just 7.4% of their possessions.

Miller put together a solid non-conference schedule, though Xavier has not been able to get over the hump against the nation’s elite. It has single-digit defeats to Duke and Gonzaga on neutral courts and suffered a two-point home loss to an Indiana team currently trending on the right side of the bubble. Its best non-conference wins are over West Virginia and Florida — both bubble teams — while the road win at crosstown rival Cincinnati could be favorably viewed by the selection committee should the Bearcats make noise in the AAC behind Houston.

Miller’s in-game adjustments and out-of-bounds calls put him among the elite coaches in the country, and that will be important come March as only Nunge and Kunkel have prior NCAA Tournament experience via Iowa and Belmont, respectively. Xavier has a historically impressive March pedigree with three regional final appearances, most recently in 2017, but both Miller and Xavier have yet to take that next step to the Final Four. Miller made three Elite Eight appearances with Arizona in 2011, 2014, and 2015 in addition to one with Xavier in 2008.

The biggest concern about the Musketeers is their defense. They give up an average of 75 points, with all three non-conference losses coming with opponents shooting 50% or better inside the arc. Xavier is soft on the perimeter defensively, allowing opponents to shoot 36.5% from 3-point range, ahead of only Georgetown in the 11-team Big East.

Despite being able to put up points, bench scoring is a concern. Even with Hunter’s improved play of late, Xavier’s reserves are averaging 13.3 points in conference play and 14.7 points overall on the season. And while the overall 3-point percentage is strong, the Musketeers have connected at just a 33.1% clip from deep the last seven games.

Scouting the sportsbooks’ offerings

Sportsbooks are viewing Xavier as legitimate Final Four contenders, which could particularly pique the interest of bettors in Ohio ahead of the first NCAA Tournament with legal wagering available in their state. The most common price being offered for Xavier is the best value at +1000, which can be found at BetRivers, WynnBET, PointsBet, bet365, Caesars, and Barstool Sportsbook. DraftKings is the most bullish on the Musketeers at +750, followed by FanDuel (+800) and SuperBook (+950).

A lot is contingent on seeding, which also depends on how the selection committee views the Big East. Should Xavier maintain its course, being placed in the bottom half of the bracket as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed could prove beneficial.

The band for Miller and the Musketeers to cut down the nets in Houston is relatively narrow, ranging from +3000 at DraftKings, FanDuel, and PointsBet to +4000 at BetRivers, Caesars, Barstool, SuperBook, bet365, and WynnBET. BetMGM opted to split the difference with its +3500 offering.

For the few books still offering markets on outright conference winners, FanDuel is the way to go with Xavier at -115 to win the Big East compared to -143 at the Kambi-powered Barstool and BetRivers.

Previous articles in the 2023 NCAA Tournament sleeper picks series: Kansas State.

Photo: Kareem Elgazzar/USA TODAY

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