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Xavier v. IPFW: Preview

Xavier will take on the Mastadons on Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne tonight at the Cintas Center. As difficult as it is to tell much about a team after one game, it is even more difficult to divine much information about a squad after a lone game under a coach. After Dane Fife's sudden departure over the summer, Tony Jasick's subsequent promotion to the head coach position, and the 'Dons victory on Saturday over the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, IPFW finds itself in exactly that position.

Some things have held true over the team's transition. They're still a little smallish; only the hilariously dubbed Trey McCorkle stands over 6'8". Despite that, they got after it on the offensive glass (24.7% offensive rebound percentage) in keeping with their performance in years past. Their turnover rate (23.1%, pretty bad) was in large part thanks to the prodigal Demario Hines, who accounted for a third of IPFW's 18 turnovers in only 18 minutes, which is kind of prolific if you think about it.

The danger man on IPFW is 6'5" senior guard Frank Gaines. Gaines led the team in scoring with 14.8 PPG last year and also put up 6.2 RPG for grins and giggles. While a serviceable shooter from outside (.326 last year), his primary threat lies in his ability to get to the rim and finish with either hand. Of the 20 points he posted from the floor his first time out this season, 14 came on lay ups. At 6'5", 195, he should be a challenging matchup for the 6'4", 220 Dez Wells.

Another interesting player on the Mastadons' roster is point guard Jonny Marlin. Aside from sounding like a character written specifically for Don Johnson to play at the height of his career, the 5'10" freshman dished out nine assists to only three turnovers in 38 minutes in his collegiate debut. It's worth noting that Nebraska-Omaha is working on its first year as a D-1 program; expect Tu to make Marlin's life significantly more miserable than it was Saturday night.

While Trey McCorkle should have his hands full with Big Kenny inside, 6'8" forward Jason Smeathers provides an interesting matchup for Xavier. He posted 10/2/1 in IPFW's first game and shot nothing but jumpers. A good portion of his points came on layups last season; it remains to be seen if he has added a wrinkle to his game that will pull Xavier's starting four out of the paint or if he was just drifting Saturday.

Three questions:
-How does Tu re-integrate?
It was only one game - and not against top-level competition - but Mark Lyons stamped his image all over Xavier's opener, and Darwin Davis looked very capable as the backup point guard. If Cheek and Dee can take a step back without making waves, Xavier will have some scary guard depth going forward.

-Who starts at three/four? Coach Mack has some decisions to make at the forward positions this year, and his first game with a full strength roster will show his hand a little bit. Dez Wells gives physical play and a scoring threat at the SF, but another scorer on the floor may not be necessary. Andre Walker provides ball distribution and a veteran presence and can handle both forward positions. Travis Taylor is a post scorer who Coach Mack is looking to for rebounding prowess. Jeff Robinson is an explosive athlete with almost maddening physical potential. For my money, I'd like to see Wells and Walker tonight.

-Can Dez Wells be an elite defender? Xavier has been blessed through the years with players who have both the desire and the ability to request the other team's best scorer with an eye toward shutting him down. Tu Holloway has this attacking instinct, but X would be better served to help him avoid using up too much energy on the defensive end. Wells has the physical tools to guard all three perimeter positions; how Coach Mack deploys him and how he performs with Frank Gaines on the other side of the ball will be a good early measure of where Wells is (and how the staff views him) as a defender right now.

Three keys:
-Share the load.
Pretty self-explanatory. Tu Holloway has the ability to take games over against teams like IPFW, but the Muskies will be better served to establish an offensive rhythm that makes it a little more difficult for opponents to zero in on Holloway.

-Own the paint. Trey McCorkle pulled down 11 defensive and 0 offensive rebounds in IPFW's opener; beyond that, no forward had more than 2 rebounds. Xavier guards need to do a good job of keeping their men - especially Gaines - off the glass so Big Kenny et al. can go to work.

-Start well. In several games last season - to say nothing of the Morgan State game Friday - the Muskies allowed an inferior opponent to hang with them early before Holloway closed the game in the last ten minutes or so. That's the kind of stuff that wears out legs over the course of the year and lets underdogs bounce high seeds in March. The time to start honing the killer instinct is now.

Bottom line:
IPFW wasn't brought in to beat X, nor should this game take an extra period like last year's did. Tu will be amped and ready to do damage, and the Muskies should follow suit and put the Mastadons in the rearview without undue drama.