The season is but still a youth when Xavier's first real test rolls around. The Tennessee Volunteers visit the Cintas Center tonight in what will be Xavier's first game on the new Fox Sports One, first game that is part of a Big East marketing push, first game as... you get the idea. For people looking to see how the new Big East is going to fare and how Xavier fits into it, this game is key.
It's a big game because Tennessee is a good team [read our team capsule on them.] The Volunteers should have made the NCAAs last year but instead treated their NIT bid with the disdain it deserved and lost in the first round of that consolation prize tournament. Ken Pomeroy currently has the Vols ranked 33rd, and ESPN RPI currently has Kent State first, so I won't bother telling you where they have Tennessee.
The Volunteers will look to play the game at a pace nearly as glacial as the one that Coach Mack seems to have favored in recent years. To aid them in doing that, Tennessee has two bigs in Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes that will eat up a lot of space inside. Both players are listed at 6-8, 260 and both can score and rebound well. Whoever starts inside with Matt Stainbrook is going to have his hands full with whichever big Matt doesn't take. Last year the Volunteers were 38th in the nation in offensive rebound rate, and that was without Maymon.
On the perimeter the Vols have their returning leading scorer Jordan McRae, but there will spend a lot of time trying to facilitate post play. Three point shooting isn't a strength of this team and, for a group that plays so slowly, they don't take great care of the ball. If Xavier is to win this game, it will be because the Volunteer backcourt simply is not capable of staying with the speed of Brandon Randolph and Semaj Christon for a full game.
- Can Xavier contain Tennessee down low? You'll hear this a lot during the game and you've read it a lot here so far this offseason, but Tennessee is big. Stokes and Maymon you already know about, but Rawanye Ndiaye stands 6-10 and is another new addition this year. G/F hybrid AJ Davis is also listed at 6-9, so the Vols are big everywhere. If Xavier can hold their own on the defensive glass and in the defensive post, it will be quite an accomplishment.
- Who can play? Both Justin Martin and Myles Davis are currently listed as day to day. As this isn't the NFL, where everything from traumatic brain injury to a hangnail lands as day to day on the injury report, we have to assume there is some chance that both players will be available today. Dee Davis also remains a question mark. According to reports in the dying medium of local newsprint Coach Mack said, "My staff has been on me to get more into statistics and analyzing data so the best I can give you is I think there's probably a 40 percent chance that 75 percent or less of our (injured) players will be able to play tomorrow."
- Will Xavier push the pace? Tennessee will look to grind the game out and play slowly through their assemblage of bigs.The obvious counterpoint to that is making the Volunteers run so they can't set up in the half court. Xavier certainly has the team speed to do that, and Randolph and Christon are going to want to go. If the Musketeers can force the pace effectively, they can cut Tennessee's best weapons right out of the game.
- Take care of the ball: Xavier didn't turn the ball over obsessively against Gardner Webb, but 15 is a still a bit concerning. Possessions are going to be much more meaningful in this game.
- Find a four: Isaiah Philmore started coming in to his own near the end of last year, but didn't start in the first game. Jalen Reynolds committed an impressive four fouls in his limited time, Erik Stenger hustles maniacally but has massive holes in his offensive game, and James Farr dominated last year's opening game and then parlayed that into 20 minutes spread over the rest of the season. Someone has to step up and grab the spot next to Stainbrook.
- Get the fans into it: It's the first real game of the year, FS1 is there, and the Big East is hyping it. The Musketeers can get a huge jump on UT if they get the Cintas rocking early.
Once again, all credit for the awesome graphic goes to Xavier and the incredible VictoryParkway Instagram feed.