*This is the fourth installment in a series of articles looking at the top preseason storylines for Xavier basketball heading into the 2016-17 season.*
Xavier has drawn plenty of preseason buzz from national publications heading into the 2016-17 season. Most every outlet expects the Musketeers to be nationally ranked, but most of them have the same concern - how will they replace graduated centers, James Farr and Jalen Reynolds?
That responsibility is going to fall on the shoulders of fifth-year senior RaShid Gaston, a transfer from Norfolk State, and junior Sean O'Mara. Neither have significant experience against Big East level competition, but there are reasons for Xavier fans to be optimistic about this year's post rotation.
The Musketeers need to replace consistent production after losing last year's frontcourt, but they won't be asking their big men to step into starring roles. With their top three scorers returning (assuming Myles Davis comes back) and plenty of offensive firepower on the perimeter, they need solid play from their post players, not standout performances.
In 2014-15, Xavier ran its offense through center Matt Stainbrook. He was a talented scorer with a variety of moves on the low block. More importantly, he was a tremendous passer that could initiate movement and actions from the post. Last year, the Musketeers employed a more free-flowing offense that promoted more ball movement around the perimeter, which created good looks for the multiple 3-point shooters on the team while also putting the most talented scorers - Trevon Bluiett, Edmond Sumner, JP Macura, and Davis - in a position to succeed. Farr and Reynolds were used more as finishers. Chris Mack ran plenty of sets for them where they'd catch the ball in position to catch and dunk or with their man sealed underneath the rim, but they weren't asked to create offense like Stainbrook was.
There were a few games last season where Farr carried the team by playing with a tremendous motor, dominating the glass, finishing everything around the rim, and getting to the free-throw line. His 16-point, 19-rebound performance in a 74-66 win at Marquette sticks out, as does his 24-point, 15-rebound game at home in an 84-76 win over Seton Hall. It remains to be seen if either Gaston or O'Mara are capable of those types of performances, but for the most part that's not the expectation.
The offensive end will be the least important aspect to replacing Farr and Reynolds. Xavier has plenty of firepower.
O'Mara looked like the Musketeers' best back-to-the-basket scorer at times last season while averaging 1.01 points per possession, which ranked second on the team to JP Macura (1.05), and shooting 60.9 percent from the field. His combination of size, strength, and confidence in his low-post moves made him effective in his limited opportunities. Producing consistently while playing extended minutes is a totally different ballgame, and he has to improve his feel. However, his ability to score on the block is his biggest strength and should be equal to or better than what XU received from its big men last year.
Watching Gaston in practice last season and the first two weeks of this preseason, it seems like he may be used in a similar fashion to Reynolds and Farr as a finisher. Look for the Musketeers to get him involved with quick duck-ins and sets featuring him as a dunker at the rim. He's improved his low-post scoring since arriving at Xavier, but it's tough to tell how much that will translate to games.
The biggest key for this year's group of big men will be rebounding at the same rate as Farr and Reynolds did last season. The Musketeers weren't necessarily dominant on the glass last year, but rebounding was never a problem because of that duo. As a team, Xavier ranked 28th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage last year and 36th in defensive rebounding percentage according to KenPom.com - both of which ranked first in the Big East.
Farr averaged 10.7 points and 7.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game, while Reynolds averaged 9.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 19.6 minutes. Farr had the highest offensive rebounding rate in the Big East at 15.5 percent, while Reynolds was 11th at 9.9 percent. Farr also had the third-highest defensive rebounding rate in the conference at 25.1 percent, while Reynolds was fifth at 23.9.
Obviously, he's making a major leap up in competition level, but Gaston rebounded at a similar rate to those two guys in his final year at Norfolk State, grabbing 23.2 percent of available defensive boards and 13.9 percent of his offensive opportunities. His offensive rate would have been tops in the Big East conference last year.
Though he saw limited playing time, O'Mara had the third-highest rebounding rates on the team last year - 19.2 percent on defense and 9.3 percent on offense. The hope is that his improved physique and conditioning will boost his production on the glass. He could definitely use improvement as an out-of-area rebounder.
Add in Kaiser Gates, who rebounded at a pretty high rate in his limited minutes as a freshman, and Trevon Bluiett, who is a solid rebounder, helping out at the four and it's reasonable to expect that Xavier will rebound the ball well again.
Defensive play will be the other big key.
Farr graded out well on the defensive end last season, while Reynolds was inconsistent. Reynolds' athleticism and length aren't easily replaced, but he also struggled to play within the system at times and allowed more points per possession (.914) than any other player on the team last year. Farr allowed the fewest points per possession at .735.
Gaston's defensive ability was one of the main reasons Xavier's staff pursued him as a transfer from Norfolk State. In 2014-15, he allowed .759 points per possession on defense and was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's Defensive Player of the Week four times. He's lighter, quicker on his feet, and more athletic after sitting out last season and working with XU's Strength and Conditioning Coach, Matt Jennings.
O'Mara didn't grade out poorly on a per possession basis (.804) last year, but he definitely showed physical limitations and had trouble with fouling too often. His average of 6.6 fouls per 40 minutes was tied with Kaiser Gates for the highest on the team. Centers with face-up skills, such as Wisconsin's Ethan Happ, clearly gave him trouble. He won't be able to make some of the plays Reynolds made, but if he's in the right spot and uses sound technique consistently then he can perform at a similar level, if not better.
Freshman Tyrique Jones is a wild card. He's new to everything and still learning, so he's a bit behind the other two and won't be relied upon to replace Reynolds and Farr this season. However, he has a college-ready body, is a great athlete, and specializes in rebounding. It wouldn't be a surprise to potentially see him earn minutes at some point down the line, assuming he doesn't redshirt.
Farr and Reynolds certainly left big shoes to fill, but those inside the Xavier program are confident in the guys stepping in to take their place. Don't expect post play to hold the Musketeers back this year.