While any NCAA basketball program's season success or failure is ultimately judged in March, the foundation for that result is laid in the months of late fall and early winter. Coach Mack has spoken in the past about breaking the year into two seasons: non-conference and conference. Because Xavier doesn't play in a conference full of members who are going to bolster the Muskies' at-large resume, they have to make hay in the fertile non-conference season. Year after year, Mario Mercurio sets 'em up and Coach Mack and the team knock 'em down. Below, we take a look at the first seven games of Xavier's non-conference season, running from the early season tune-ups right up to the Crosstown Shootout.
NB: teams are noted with last year's record, RPI ranking, and Ken Pom ranking. Full write-ups include in-depth information on the team's losses, returnees, incoming players, and playing style from our "Know Your Non-conference Opponent" series.
After an exhibition game with dangerous Bellarmine, XU kicks off the season with the first of its guarantee games when Morgan State rolls into town. Tu Holloway is suspended for this game, but that shouldn't matter too much for X. Morgan State is a low-major team that shouldn't challenge the Muskies too much. Coach Todd Bozeman has the Bears playing hard on both ends of the floor and committing to the offensive glass, but there's a reason that - despite all that effort - they went 17-14 last season.
They bring back a trio of double-digit scorers in forwards Dewayne Jackson and Kevin Thompson and guard Aric Brooks, but they are all volume shooters more than efficient scorers. Most big programs try to avoid starting the year with a team that could give them trouble if they have some early-season jitters (or their best player is suspended for playing too much basketball over the summer), and Morgan State looks to be that for Xavier. For our full write-up on the Bears, click here.
Bottom line: A typical warm-up game between a a major program (Xavier) and a guarantee-game cupcake (Morgan State). Good for the record, not so much for the RPI.
The Mastadons are a repeat visitor to the Cintas Center, having visted Xavier three times since the 2004-2005 tipped off. They've lost all three of those games by an average of 15 points, including a ten-point overtime defeat last year. That season's team was borderline lethal from the perimeter and about stole the game from Xavier, but both lead guards and the head coach are gone. This year's team has been brought to Cinci to give Xavier game experience without the risk of a loss.
IPFW brought in three junior college transfers to try to restock the pool with talent and experience, but there a lot of moving parts to this team as compared to what it was a year back. Leading scorer Frank Gaines returns to offer some measure of stability and familiarity for Morgan State fans (assuming they're out there), but Xavier will be the better team on the court on the night. This will be Tu's first game of the season and he's sure to want to put his mark on it. For our full write-up on the Mastadons, click here.
Bottom line: IPFW had a puncher's chance thanks to their outside shooting last year; this year they're that team Xavier plays in the first game Tu is back.
Charlie Coles' RedHawks come in for the segue from the guarantee games to the tougher portion of the schedule. Miami shouldn't be much of a stumbling block for Xavier, but they shouldn't have been one last year, either. The team that knocked off the Muskies last season will be 25 points and 14 boards lighter per game, thanks to the departures of the their second and third leading scorers and rebounders. They were a defensive sieve en route to a 16-17 record last season.
Julian Mavunga, the team's leader in just about everything, comes back to lead the charge into Cintas. Despite the rising senior's best efforts, Miami doesn't have the size or girth to hold the Muskies off the glass. With Xavier's bigs going to work inside, their guards should be freed up on the perimeter. There's no question that Xavier has Miami out-gunned at every turn. Only a lapse in concentration similar to last year's can keep X from winning easily; with that loss in the rear view, don't expect Xavier to make the same mistake twice. For our full write-up on the RedHawks, click here.
Bottom line: Julian Mavunga is a legitimate mid-major star, but he's not got a lot of support on his team this year. This is another game that will help Xavier get to 3-0 but not do much else for the ol' resume.
While most of us are stuffing our pie holes with leftover turkey (or pie), Coach Mack and his charges will be facing their first serious contest of the season. The two best players from the Georgia Bulldogs team the Muskies' played last year are now LA Clippers, but guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware - worth over 20 PPG last year - have come back. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looks at this point like he'll be eligible to play; the ESPN 100 guard will add a viable third option to Coach Mark Fox's offense.
Georgia was a banner win for Xavier last season, an indication that XU's season was still on track. Now they're a second stepping stone between the guarantee games and the heavy hitters coming down the pike. SEC teams are always good for the RPI and a challenging test for the Muskies. Georgia has brought in a couple of good recruits and a JuCo seven-footer this year, but they should still be a year away from challenging X. The season is ratcheting up at this point, but the combination of home court advantage and a depleted Georgia squad should be enough for this game to hit the W column. For our full write-up on the Bulldogs, click here.
Bottom line: The team's first real test. Georgia is not going to be the game it was last year in terms of competition or postseason implications, but they're still not an opponent to be taken lightly.
Xavier was initially going to play Wake on this date, but the Demon Deacons couldn't find room in the schedule to continue the series scheduled in honor of Skip Prosser. Vanderbilt is a really good basketball team who knocked off several tournament teams last year. The Commodores have made the tournament as a six or better in four of the last five years and figure to be even better this year. Guards John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley return 30 PPG between them, and both shot well from both the floor and behind the arc.
Big man Festus Ezeli was initially slated to come off suspension for this game, but a knee injury has put his participation in the first six to eight weeks of the season in serious doubt. Forward Jeffery Taylor brings back 15 PPG, but Xavier will dodge a bullet if Ezeli is out for this game. Despite that, Vandy is a legit top-ten team and will be a serious road test for a Xavier team that should be growing into its potential as November winds down. For our full write-up on the Commodores, click here.
Bottom line: Xavier has four games they should expect to win up to this point in the year; this one is significantly more difficult. Going into a tough team's home court is no easy task; win or lose, this one will help X in March.
Purdue is not a preseason top 25 team, but their recent track record is nothing to be sneezed at. Matt Painter teaches smothering defense, and the Boilermakers have responded. Purdue is perennially in the top 20 in the nation in AdjD, and that doesn't disappear when talented offensive players graduate. Speaking of which, Purdue lost JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore to the Boston Celtics, which is a gutting loss to just about any program.
You may have heard of Robbie Hummel - most people have - and he is back from his second ACL reconstruction to try to lead a relatively tallow Purdue squad. Hummel's talent alone gives Purdue a puncher's chance against just about anyone; couple that with their focus on defensive responsibilities as a team make them a potentially frightening matchup with X. The Muskies should be able to handle Purdue, but this is not a matchup that Xavier fans should look at as a walk in the park. For our full write-up on the Boilermakers, click here.
Bottom line: Purdue is a big name team in a down year, but Hummel gives them instant cache (assuming he's healthy). The Boilermakers have the kind of swagger to come into Cintas and give X a game, but this one should be a resume-boosting W for Xavier.
The series with Butler has become one of the more enjoyable match ups on Xavier's schedule. Not only has Butler's increased national profile in turn boosted Xavier's, but X gets to play in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, and the travel from Cinci to Indiana makes it an accessible game for Muskies fans. The series showcases a pair of the best programs outside the BCS conferences, and the last two years' games have both been decided by a single possession.
Butler - in case you missed it - has been to back-to-back national title games. While the cupboard appears to be running bare on Coach Brad Stevens, he returns a couple of potentially big time interior talents in Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall. The two-time Horizon League Coach of the Year will have his hands full shaping this team into a contender, but the same could have been said of his situation last season. There's usually only room in the national media's heart for one "mid-major" team; knocking off the current darling not only helps XU make fill that void but also provides the very real return of a quality road win. That prize won't be easy to earn in Indy this year. For our full write-up on the Bulldogs, click here.
Bottom line: The Butler game is always a good time, and there is also the boost in cachet and RPI that comes with playing a well-exposed and successful program. Xavier has the more impressive talent in this game, but Butler in Indy is never an easy game.