Preseason listings for awards can be even more ridiculously irrelevant that preseason polls and rankings. I suspect the fact that there's no real basketball going is a large part of why (a) these listings get created and published and (b) anyone devotes any real amount of time to inspecting them. Once the first meaningful tip of the season goes up, fans will care more about what happens on the court and less about watch lists for laurels named for the dear departed. We're still a few weeks from wading into real hoops though, so when the preseason watch list for the Wooden Award comes out, we poke it with a stick for a while.
The most interesting part of the story for X fans is the fact that one of our guys - in this case the irrepressible Tu Holloway - has made the list. ESPN.com has reached out to people who coach against the players on the list for brief (and anonymous) scouting reports on each nominee. The word on Tu is that "Holloway combines strength and speed with an exceptional ability to penetrate and make plays for his teammates. Unlike many point guards today, he is a tremendous deep shooter, which makes him impossible to defend with one player." While this report may flatter Tu's consistency from range, it does serve to illustrate that he is not only one of the top 50 players in the national but also a player who garners serious respect from his opponents.
The players are listed alphabetically by last name rather than by team, so Festus Ezeli - Vandy's 6'11" senior center - is next on the list. "He might have the best chance at a long career of anyone in the league," opines the anonymous source with a glib disregard for traditional syntax. "He is older and a legit NBA center." Ezeli has the breadth to fight off slimmer, more athletic bigs like Jeff Robinson, so this matchup screams for Big Kenny. I get the impression Kenny has NBA dreams of his own, and matching or outplaying Ezeli on both ends of the floor could go a long way towards boosting his stock.
Gonzaga's 6'7" forward Elias Harris "is an athletic, explosive player who is most dangerous doing three things: (1) sprinting the floor for dunks and layups; (2) facing up on the block and attacking; (3) hitting the offensive boards. These traits reward him with frequent trips to the line, and to top it off, he is capable of hurting you from the 3-point line if left open." If Will Barton will be a good out-of-conference battle for whoever wants to prove he belongs at the three, Elias Harris is an absolute nightmare for anyone hoping to etch his name in as Big Kenny's sidekick. Frease will be busy with Sacre against the Zags; it will take superb effort and good team play to keep Harris contained all night.
Purdue's Robbie Hummel needs no introduction. "If healthy, he's as solid as anybody. He's a winner. He can play the 3, the 4, or the 2. He's a tough matchup. It will all come down to whether he's healthy or not." A 6'8" wing, Hummel will be a player that will test the awareness, ability, and versatility of the Musketeers. His range and quickness are such that smaller players are forced to check him on the perimeter, but the bigs will have to be ready to deputize lest he take advantage of a mismatch by moving inside. Hummel's performance - assuming he's healthy - will be a good barometer of how well the team has worked the new arrivals into Coach Mack's pack-line defense.
We're back to Memphis for 6'1" sophomore guard Joe Jackson, who "is elusive and has explosive speed" according to the coach providing the report. "He's extremely effective in the open court. He has gotten better at running a team and creating for others." Tu and Cheek are the veterans who should be able to impose Xavier's will on the game. In addition to that, Lyons has elite athleticism on par with just about anyone in the nation, and Tu isn't that far behind him. This should be a matchup that challenges but ultimately doesn't overwhelm Xavier's veteran guards.
Vandy's 6'3" sharpshooting John Jenkins is also on the list. His opposing coach notes that "he is the best shooter in the SEC and maybe the nation. He puts it down some, too, but is just deadly when he has a good look." Good shooters and good post players work off of one another, so Xavier's team defense is going to be tasked with helping down on Ezeli while not handing Jenkins open looks. There's a reason Vanderbilt is considered one of the tougher games on the slate this year, and a good showing against Jenkins and Ezeli would go a long way towards bolstering Xavier's confidence (and March resume).
Tu isn't the only A-10 player on the list; St Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson also made the initial cut. An anonymous opposing coach who I'm just going to assume was Coach Mack said, "Nicholson is fast, strong, and efficient as a scorer and a defensive rebounder regardless of the opponent. He is also a very underrated passer and shot blocker. He knows how to use his body to protect the ball and has a very high basketball IQ. His long wingspan and great bounce allow him to play above the rim." At 20.8 PPG, Nicholson is the nation's third-leading returning scorer. On his own, he's a matchup nightmare, but the quality of the four guys around him should allow Xavier to nullify some of his one-on-one abilities.
Vandy swings back around for another hit with Jeffery Taylor. Our anonymous source says that "he benefits from being surrounded by great players. But he also suffers because he is talented enough to be a lead role player." Taylor is, in fact, more than a lead role player on his current team, sporting the second highest usage rate and percentage of shots taken on the squad. The senior is another cog in Vandy's experienced machine and - at 6'7" - his ability to score inside (second on his team in fouls drawn) and outside (.345 from deep last year) will really stretch Xavier's defensive capabilities.
There you have it then. To put teeth to their already formidable schedule, Xavier figures to face eight of the top fifty players in the nation, at least according to the good folks who make the Wooden watch list. Each of these players will draw something out of the Xavier roster, focusing it into the well-oiled machine required to advance in March. Either that, or they'll reveal chinks in Xavier's armor, forcing the staff and players to scramble for answer as the clock winds down on the season. I hope for my own sake as well as the sake of Xavier fans everywhere that the former is the case.
Who is the best player X will face this year?
Festus Ezeli (1 vote)
Andrew Nicholson (7 votes)
Robbie Hummel (15 votes)
Jeffery Taylor (4 votes)
John Jenkins (12 votes)
Elias Harris (8 votes)
Joe Jackson (3 votes)
Will Barton (4 votes)
Other (2 votes)
56 total votes