If you missed the first installment of this series, catch up here. We'll wait.
The first half of Xavier's non-conference season starts out with three less stringent tests before ratcheting up the intensity with three straight games with teams from power conferences and the two-time reigning national runners-up. The second half of non-conference slate jumps off with the Crosstown Shootout, hands down the most emotionally charged game of the regular season for X. The Muskies also have the pleasure of competing in the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu and squaring off against the original mid-major darling. After ten conference contests, the OOC season wraps up with Memphis on the A-10 off weekend.
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.
The Bearcats bring back a couple of potentially top-notch scorers. Yancy Gates emerged from his slumber inside and is on a number of preseason player to watch lists; joining him there is sophomore Sean Kilpatrick, whose production in limited minutes last year hints at serious scoring potential for this season. Dion Dixon is sure to make his presence felt before the season runs its course for the other major program in Cincinnati. UC is back on track to national relevance, which makes this annual game all the more vital for the Muskies. For our full write-up on the Bearcats, click here.
It's no secret that Xavier and Cincinnati don't like each other, nor is it a ground-shaking revelation that XU is going to want to tag the Bearcats back for the debacle we witnessed last season. The Bearcats under Mick Cronin are traditionally relentless on the offensive glass and aggressive on defense, playing an ugly and formidable form of basketball. Cincinnati comes into the season ranked in the Top 25 but just underneath XU; obviously, none of that will matter come December 10.
Bottom line: The Crosstown Shootout is more than just an intra-city grudge match this year. Xavier and UC both have legitimiate hopes for the Sweet Sixteen and beyond; win or lose, this game will help XU resume in March.
After the UC game comes the long layoff for finals week; after that comes Oral Roberts. Mario Mercurio shared with us that he tries to avoid a big-time opponent in the post-Shootout, and he certainly knocked it out of the park in that regard this year. Oral Roberts isn't a walkover though, and they bring some meaningful offensive firepower to bear on the Muskies the week before Christmas. ORU brings back no fewer than four scorers who posted at least 12 PPG last season.
The most notable of those is preseason mid-major all-American Dominique Morrison, who did almost as much for Oral Roberts as Julian Mavunga did for Miami (OH). He is joined in the front court by Damian Bell-Holter and Steven Roundtree, who posted 25 and 14 between them for the Golden Eagles. ORU was very thin last year, getting less than a quarter of their minutes off the bench. It's a long road from where Oral Roberts is now to turf Xavier occupies; XU should be able to take care of business in this game. For our full write-up on Oral Roberts, click here.
Bottom line: Oral Roberts has four guys who can really fill it up; a lax effort by the Muskies could put this game in jeopardy. This one sits in a tricky spot in the Xavier schedule - after UC, right before Diamond Head - which is why it's the worst opponent you'll see this late in the non-conference season. The only way this could show up in March is as a bad loss.
LBSU is Xavier's first - and only sure - opponent at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawai'i. The 49ers are a good and veteran team who bring back a good deal of talent from a tournament-quality squad from last year. Guard Casper Ware was an honorable mention AP All-American last season, returning swingman Larry anderson threw up 14 and 6 on the team's best EFG% (54.7), and Eugene Phelps played underneath the basket for the second-thinnest team in nation last year.
There's a good chance that Long Beach State is the best team that Xavier will play in Honolulu, depending on how the season plays out and how the tournament develops. Xavier is going to have their work cut out for them in their first game in Hawai'i. With their returning skill and the leadership of Dan Monson on the bench, Long Beach is not quite Xavier's equal, but they should provide a good first game for the Muskies. For our full write-up on Long Beach State, click here.
Bottom line: The Diamond Head Classic is a good holiday tournament for Xavier. Long Beach State should challenge for the tournament (the NCAA one in March, I mean) this season, and the win that Xavier should get over them in this game will look mighty nice on the resume come March.
The result of the Long Beach game will determine Xavier's fortune in the second and third games of the Classic. A loss will consign them to a game played so late on the 23rd that it will technically be the wee hours of the morning on Christmas Eve over here, followed by a mediocre mid-day slot on Christmas Day - and hour that I was reserved for gorging myself on ham, to be honest. A win lines up a 11pm tip December 23rd and a chance at the 10pm Christmas Day championship game.
As far as opponents for those games go, the first will be determined by the result of the Auburn v. Hawai'i game. The final game will be determined by the results of the previous games, but it will ultimately be someone out of the somewhat uninspiring quartet of Clemson, Kansas State, UTEP, and Southern Illinois. None of these teams are quite what they have been in years past, and Xavier should be considered the favorite if they get past LBSU.
Bottom line: It's hard not to be excited about having three games in four days over the Christmas break, and the Diamond Head Classic should be a good experience for Xavier. This will be the first exposure to collegiate tournament play for some of the young Muskies, and the chance to take home some silverware before the conference season is certainly Xavier's for the taking here.
I'm took some stick from the Bulldog faithful for referring to Robert Sacre as "semi-loathsome" earlier this year, but I'm standing by my assessment of him. Aside from my visceral feelings toward Gonzaga - none of which are flattering - they are a consistently good program whose national footprint is unquestionable. Mark Few is what Xavier fans hope Chris Mack will end up being - a successful and loyal coach who stays in town for the long haul.
Sacre and Robert Harris will be one of the toughest frontcourt combinations the Muskies play this season. A lot of this game will come down to if Big Kenny and who ever is starting at the four can hold their own in the paint and allow Xavier's backcourt advantage to tell. Gonzaga should have found some stability in that regard by this time; if they haven't, X may run riot. It's also worth mentioning that three of the freshman suiting up for the Zags won their state's Mr. Basketball award last season. For our full write-up on the Bulldogs, click here.
Bottom line: If Xavier can keep Harris out of the paint an Sacre off the line, they should be able to extract their revenge for last year's defeat. Gonzaga will have games against Michigan State, Notre Dame, Arizona, and Butler under their belts before this game. Knocking off the Bulldogs should be well within Xavier's ability, and that would be a nice looking win heading into conference play.
While the other A-10 teams are taking the weekend off, Xavier has made the habit of taking a last opportunity to bolster their tournament resume. After nine conference games, Xavier will head down to Memphis to take on the Tigers. Memphis is back on the way up under Josh Pastner, a talented young recruiter who can also coach a little. With the second-youngest team in the nation last year, Pastner took Memphis to the tourney and within one possession of knocking off Arizona.
Memphis brings back four of their top scorers, their top rebounder, and their top assist man from last season. With that, 6'11", 240 lb JuCo transfer Stan Simpson, and highly-touted forward Adonis Thomas coming in, the Tigers have more than enough talent to compete this year. The only question is is they will come together soon enough to be a threat to Xavier in February. Behind Pastner, my money is on yes. For our full write-up on the Tigers, click here.
Bottom line: After a month working through the Atlantic 10, Xavier is going to go up against maybe the most talented team on their schedule. Going to Memphis to face a team with two-thirds under its belt to get its act together is a recipe for trouble for Xavier. If Memphis comes together like I think they will, this is going to be a tough game for Xavier to win, but it will help the SOS ranking either way.
That's it for the non-conference schedule. Check back next Tuesday and Thursday for Brad's breakdown of the other 13 teams in the Atlantic 10.