It has been a long summer. Longer than most, thanks to Xavier's premature departure from the basketball season. A program accustomed to playing into the second weekend of March Madness fell at the first hurdle in the conference tournament, leaving the bitter taste of defeat to linger a little bit longer than Xavier fans have become accustomed to.
It's over now, though. Last year's trophies and banners will be nothing but decorations tonight; the losses and missed opportunities that drove players all summer are now history. As the venerable Ken Pomeroy tweeted out this morning, 351 unbeatens remain. It is - finally - basketball season again.
Not much has changed for Gardner Webb since the preview in our "Know Your Non-conference Opponent" series ran. They're still a bad team posturing about a 21-win season and a minor postseason tournament appearance (it should be noted here that Xavier did not appear in any postseason tournament, no matter how minor; the Muskies did turn down invites to the lesser events). Their website is touting that they appeared in the RPI top 200 for the first time last season and their coach is talking all the normal preseason stuff about playing faster and being solid at both ends of the floor, et c. They are who they were when we first wrote them up, though. Anyway...
On the Xavier front, a couple of things are noteworthy heading into tonight's opener. Dee Davis suffered a concussion and is being held out as a mostly precautionary measure. It will be interesting to see who Coach Mack selects as his starting five in the absence of a player we all assume will be in the lineup when healthy. Landen Amos - who recently was awarded a second-semester scholarship - is out 4-6 weeks with a torn meniscus. Jalen Reynolds was limited in the exhibition game due to an elbow injury he picked up in practice, but he figures to be full go for tonight's contest.
-How do the new guys settle in? Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Gardner Webb isn't exactly a heavyweight champ (look at me, all extending the analogy), but Myles Davis, Jalen Reynolds, Kamall Richards, and Brandon Randolph will be experiencing their first actual college basketball tonight. All four have varying roles to play in Xavier's depth this year; it would be nice to see them get off the mark well against a warm-up opponent.
-How does Semaj handle the new roster? Despite his obvious ability to score the basketball, Semaj has gone on record in the past as saying he is more comfortable falling into a role that balances ball distribution with finding his own shot. Last year's offensive options left Christon forced to carry the load for Xavier's often sputtering offense. This year's team looks to have more firepower, but it takes game action for players to really get a feel for how everything fits together. The sooner Xavier's primary ballhandler finds his rhythm and starts managing touches, the better Xavier's season will look.
-Can we learn much from this game? Likely not. The Bulldogs, like FDU last year, were not brought in to be an early test for the Musketeers. It will be nice to see all the new faces in uniform, but drawing too many conclusions from a game that is functionally halfway between an exhibition and the real season probably isn't practical.
-Protect the ball. One of the (few) things GW did well last season was force turnovers at a high rate. Xavier was a little bit loose with the ball last year, and Dee Davis - though he was one of the primary culprits in that looseness - is going to be missed as a veteran ballhandler. It's going to be incumbent on Semaj and his new running mates to pass the ball to the right team.
-Get the ball inside. Gardner Webb simply doesn't have anyone with the bulk to handle Xavier's bigs, especially not Stainbrook. The team occasionally had a habit of ignoring Travis Taylor on the post last year; it would behoove the squad to get in the habit of feeding the post early and often this year.
-Don't dance. Gardner Webb is in Cincinnati primarily to pay the bills for their athletic department. Teams with aspirations as high as Xavier's always are don't let guarantee games stay close. The Musketeers have the talent to run the Bulldogs off the court, and the home opener should be more than enough motivation for everyone to come out on point. This is a game Xavier should dominate from the jump, and anything less than that is a sign of a lack of focus more than a lack of talent.