College Basketball Broadcaster and Reporter
When Sean Miller sat down in the spring to talk about returning to Xavier to coach the Musketeers, I asked him the simple question: What is possible here?
Miller grinned, and took no time to get to his point.
“Everything that I would have thought would be possible at my previous place, Arizona,” Miller told FOX Sports. “To go to a Final Four, to compete and win championships, that’s the expectation level here at Xavier.”
When Miller left the Musketeers for a bigger job in Tucson in 2009, Xavier was in the Atlantic 10. Miller’s love for the Cincinnati area never dwindled though. After a year away from the sideline and due diligence from Xavier athletic director Greg Christopher and company on the NCAA investigation into Arizona and Miller, there was a comfort level that Miller could return home to the Cintas Center – and lead Xavier’s resurgence in the Big East.
On New Year’s Eve, Miller and the Musketeers closed 2022 by announcing to the country that they are in fact back.
Xavier ended UConn’s 14-game winning streak to start the year, handing the Huskies their first defeat, 83-73, in a game that was shown to a nationwide audience on FOX. In what was just a two-point game with three minutes on the clock, the Musketeers put away their eighth straight win behind five scoring in double-figures.
The victory gave Xavier its first 4-0 start to Big East play in program history, and marked the second-highest ranked win the program has had at the Cintas Center (No. 1 Villanova, 2016).
“This is a big deal. I’m not going to tell you it’s not a big deal. We beat what I think is one of the best teams in college basketball,” Miller said.
In a flurry of New Year’s weekend activity, the Musketeers made the biggest statement. For a program that was a No. 1 seed in 2018 and had been an NCAA Tournament staple, then went through four seasons of disappointment under Travis Steele after Chris Mack left for Louisville, Saturday marked a return to the center of the spotlight for the program. Xavier showed that it can challenge Connecticut in the Big East title race.
[23 in ’23: Top college basketball storylines entering the new year]
Fittingly, Miller’s previous school followed Xavier Saturday on FOX, with Arizona notching a commanding rivalry win over Arizona State. At 13-1 on the season, Tommy Lloyd is now 46-5 as head coach of the Wildcats, who have won seven in a row. They are dreaming of a Final Four in Tucson, and rightly so. While Miller and the Wildcats parted separate ways, it’s interesting to see that both have found ways to achieve much success in their new eras, with the investigation fully in the rearview mirror now. At the moment, Xavier and Arizona are two of college basketball’s headliners.
With that, here’s our newest Top 15:
1. Arizona (13-1)
Yes, the Wildcats do have a loss, but remember, these are power rankings. The Cats won the Maui Invitational, rolled by Indiana in a neutral-site game and overwhelmed Tennessee’s defense in Tucson. The way that they controlled a rivalry game on the road at Arizona State for a seventh straight win was also impressive. Azuolas Tubelis continues to play like a first team All-American, going for 21 points and nine rebounds. For now, the Cats are my top team.
Ąžuolas Tubelis’ 21 points fuels No. 5 Arizona’s victory over Arizona State
2. Purdue (13-0)
If on Sunday night of this week, the Boilermakers are still unbeaten, I will gladly crown them No. 1 in the country. But, I’ll be unlike many for now and place them at No. 2 because in their most recent tests against Nebraska and Davidson, I felt like both opponents found a way to successfully defend the Boilers. Do I think the Boilers can win the Big Ten title, make a Final Four and win it all? I certainly think they could, but I believe their first loss comes this week.
3. Houston (14-1)
The Cougars edged UCF on Saturday, 71-65, with Tramon Mark putting up 19 points and six rebounds to lead the way. Marcus Sasser battled his shot throughout the day, scoring 18 points but needing 20 shots to get there. He needs to keep progressing back to his normal self for Houston to reach its potential.
4. UConn (14-1)
The Huskies were due for a loss, but this week presents their biggest adversity of the season to navigate. How will this team respond from defeat in a hostile atmosphere on Wednesday? Connecticut visits Providence at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1 before returning home Saturday for a showdown with Creighton at noon ET on FOX. A road trip to Marquette follows next week. Yes, this is the toughest stretch in the Huskies’ schedule and will play a big part in where this team’s NCAA Tournament seed ends up.
5. Kansas (12-1)
The Jayhawks had their backs against the wall in their Big 12 opener, trailing by 15 at the half on Saturday against Oklahoma State. But, it’s not the first time Jalen Wilson and the defending national champs had to overcome a deficit, and it showed. He scored 20 points while KJ Adams delivered in the clutch and Dujuan Harris dished off nine assists in the 69-67 win. There’s no rest for the weary this week, with the Jayhawks visiting Texas Tech and West Virginia.
6. Alabama (11-2)
Brandon Miller is the best freshman in college basketball. His 19-and-11 performance helped power the Crimson Tide past a ranked Mississippi State team in the SEC opener.
7. Tennessee (11-2)
The Volunteers are relentless defensively and that may be an understatement. Santiago Vescovi supplied 22 points in their 63-59 SEC opener win at Ole Miss.
8. Texas (12-1)
The Longhorns have avoided any hiccups with head coach Chris Beard still suspended indefinitely. Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen each scored 13 points in Saturday’s 70-69 win over Oklahoma.
9. UCLA (13-2)
The Bruins’ win streak has hit 10! UCLA took a scare at Washington State but All-American wing Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 20 points and five-star freshman Adem Bona hit a game-winning layup to lift Mick Cronin’s team to a 67-66 win. A blowout victory over Washington ensued Sunday, and the Bruins are 4-0 in the Pac-12.
10. Gonzaga (12-3)
During the Zags’ seven-game winning streak, Drew Timme has averaged 27.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He’s doing his best to get into the national player of the year race and give Zach Edey a run for his money.
11. Miami (13-1)
For as much as we hyped up North Carolina in the preseason coming off their improbable run to the national title game, we missed on Miami not even being ranked. The Hurricanes need to be treated as a legit ACC title threat. The backcourt duo of Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack has been everything Jim Larranaga could hope for to this point. Senior wing Jordan Miller has evolved as well, and Norchad Omier gets it done on the glass. The Canes have reloaded.
Miami Hurricanes are atop Andy Katz’s Sleeper Team Tiers
12. Virginia (10-2)
The Cavaliers are a slot behind Miami because the Hurricanes own the head-to-head result over UVA from Dec. 20, a 66-64 game in Coral Gables. That being said, I still like Tony Bennett and the Hoos to win the ACC regular-season title. Kihei Clark had 15 points and eight assists in Saturday’s blowout win at Georgia Tech.
13. Arkansas (11-2)
The Razorbacks fall out of our top ten after shooting just 4-for-25 in last week’s 60-57 loss at LSU. Losing Trevon Brazile has been tough on this team, and Nick Smith’s injury status is up in the air as the top NBA prospect is out with “knee management.” The Hogs got nothing from their bench against the Tigers last week. Their bench is problematic right now.
14. Wisconsin (10-2)
When the Badgers hit the floor to play Minnesota on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET, BTN), it will mark just their second game in 19 days. That’s because their Dec. 23 contest against Grambling was canceled due to a winter storm. Steven Crowl went for a career-high 25 points in Friday’s win over Western Michigan.
15. Xavier (12-3)
Colby Jones responded from a slow start in the win over UConn, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go with five assists. Senior Zach Freemantle added 16 and 11. And in a big game, someone from the Musketeers’ bench rose to the occasion, an area that’s been up and down at times. Senior forward Jerome Hunter put up 15 points in 20 minutes, delivering in the sixth-man role against a deep UConn team.
No. 2 UConn falls to No. 22 Xavier on NYE
Five other takeaways on the sport…
1. How about Kobe Brown and Missouri?
The Tigers are 12-1 on the season after dominating Kentucky last week in an 89-75 win. Kobe Brown, a 6-foot-8 senior who’s stuck by the program through difficult times, has back-to-back 30-point games in wins over Illinois and the Wildcats. Dennis Gates has done a remarkable job in his season at the helm, and Mizzou is a top-25 team.
2. Speaking of Tigers, Matt McMahon and LSU are rolling.
The SEC has six new head coaches on the sidelines, and for the most part, there’s been some pleasant surprises. LSU is one of them. Just over a week into his tenure, former Murray State coach Matt McMahon did not have a single scholarship player. Fast-forward to now, and he enters 2023 with a 12-1 record overall and 1-0 in the SEC after knocking off Arkansas. He nailed it in the transfer portal and his team scraps defensively.
3. Kansas State rallied to beat West Virginia in impressive fashion.
The most powerful moment of the Jerome Tang era came on New Year’s Eve. Kansas State looked dead in the water at home, starting at 1-of-11 from the floor and falling behind 17-3 against West Virginia. But, the level of defensive intensity that K-State played with didn’t change, and the Cats came away with an 82-76 overtime win.
The player of the game, and our player of the week? Markquis Nowell. He had 23 points, 10 assists, and seven steals … in 43 minutes of basketball! Tang has Kansas State at a remarkable 12-1 and in position to make the NCAA Tournament.
4. Shaka Smart stays unbeaten against Villanova.
Here’s your stat of the week: Villanova has lost a total of three Big East games at the Finneran Pavilion since the 2013-14 season.
Shaka Smart owns two of those.
Marquette added another road win to its resume on Saturday, overcoming a five-point halftime deficit to beat Villanova 68-66 to go to 11-4 overall, and 3-1 in the Big East. Stevie Mitchell, a native of Reading, Penn., delivered a career-high 19 points in the victory.
With a win over Baylor in their non-conference and a strong start to league play, the Golden Eagles are well in position for a second straight NCAA Tournament bid. Smart has done a remarkable job.
Marquette vs. Villanova Highlights
5. How about Penn State?
No, we’re not talking about the Rose Bowl here. Second-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry has the Nittany Lions at 11-3 on the year and 2-1 in the Big Ten after Sunday’s 83-79 win over Iowa. If you have not seen fifth-year senior guard Jalen Pickett, he is a must-see talent. An All-American candidate, the 6-foot-4 superstar had 26 points, seven rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes. It’s been 11 years since Penn State made the NCAA Tournament. That’s a very real possibility for the program in 2023.
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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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