CINCINNATI – Nobody's had a worse offseason than Xavier.
The bad news started a month after the Musketeers' latest appearance in the NCAA tournament's round of 16. Returning senior guard Mark Lyons didn't see eye-to-eye with coach Chris Mack, who wanted him to become more of a team player this season. Lyons was gone.
A few months later, forward Dez Wells — the only returning starter — was expelled from the school for violating its code of student conduct. Just like that, the school that has dominated the Atlantic 10 found itself in an unaccustomed tough spot.
"It seemed like every week, personnel was changing," senior guard Brad Redford said. "There was a new story for us to deal with. We had workouts and stuff to do, so we just tried to keep it in focus and take care of what we can as individuals."
It was tough to see a team with high expectations come apart so quickly.
"I think part of it is discouraging," Redford said. "Anytime you get news one of your teammates may have to leave the team or the school, you care about that guy, care about him, you've been in practice with him day after day. You're saying goodbye to a good friend.
"It's a matter of sticking together."
What's left of the Musketeers is trying to hold on for what shapes up as Xavier's most challenging season in a long time.
The Musketeers won five straight A-10 regular season titles, a streak that ended last season when they finished third with a 23-13 record overall. They played their best at the end of a tough season that included a brawl against crosstown rival Cincinnati, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons before losing to Baylor.
Point guard Tu Holloway, center Kenny Frease and forward Andre Walker graduated, costing the Musketeers their top scorers on the perimeter and inside. When Lyons and Wells left, it was a complete sweep.
Xavier is picked to finish ninth in the A-10 because of the lack of experience and depth. The Musketeers opened the season with only eight scholarship players — in more bad news, freshmen Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds were ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Also, junior forward Isaiah Philmore has to miss the first three games because of a paperwork problem in his transfer from Towson.
There were so few Musketeers at the start of the season that Mack had to scale back on practice.
"We don't have a lot of scholarship bodies now," Mack said. "For us to try to grind it out for three hours every day would be foolish. We want to be at our best when the season matters most. It's a fine line as a coach. You have to compete every day, you have to get players in game condition but at the same time, we're not trying to wear our kids down as the season goes along.
"That's been the biggest challenge, to practice efficiently to meet our objectives."
Xavier expects a lot from its three seniors — forward Jeff Robinson (3.6 points per game), forward Travis Taylor (4.5 points) and Redford (3.2 points), a 3-point specialist off the bench who will be another year removed from reconstructive knee surgery. Sophomore Dee Davis, who averaged 11 minutes and 1.9 points last season, takes over for Holloway at the point. Freshman Semaj Christon is expected to start at shooting guard.
"We lost a lot of guys from last year that played a ton of minutes and played huge roles for us," Redford said. "All the guys are figuring out our roles on this team, where we can help."
Whenever the Musketeers needed a clutch basket last season, they could count on Holloway to take the shot or feed the ball inside for a basket. It'll be more of a collective effort this season instead of an offense that relies on its guards.
"In terms of production, I'd like to think we'll be a more balanced team than we have in the last couple of years," Mack said.
One other significant change: Mack expects to play a lot more zone defense because of his short-handed roster.
Mack has reminded his inexperienced players about Xavier's tradition of winning.
"You don't want to see yourself (picked) in ninth, 10th, wherever they have us ranked," Redford said. "Here at Xavier, we've been at the top of the A-10. Every year I've been here, we've been first for the most part. Right now for this group, it's about taking it day by day."