Sandwiched between the Michigan game and a trip to Orlando for the Advocare Invitational is Xavier's home game against Northern Kentucky. It hasn't been that long since NKU was a preseason exhibition game, but now the Norse are transitioning to D1 competition and they're on the schedule for real. After spending a couple of years in the Atlantic Sun, NKU is now beginning play in the illustrious Horizon League. It might be a little demeaning to NKU to call this a trap game, but it's also at least a little accurate.
John Brannen took the helm at NKU in April; this will be his first season as a head coach. Prior to joining the Norse, he was an assistant to Anthony Grant at VCU and Alabama, earning a promotion to associate head coach in 2013. Brannen has been a great recruiter wherever he has worked. It's hard to say exactly what his tactical style is going to be, but I have to imagine he'll try to implement some of the same swarming defense that Grant has used. Prior to joining the coaching ranks, Brannen was the leading scorer in the SoCon as a senior in '96-'97 and a Rhodes Scholar finalist.
At the top of the list is G Tayler Persons. You might recall he flirted with Xavier for a bit before taking his 13.1/4.6/3.7 on .436/.185/.763 shooting and heading to Ball State. He led the team in usage, scoring, assists, and steals and was third in rebounding as a freshman; that's a big blow to lose. Also, he's listed at 6'3", 230; I don't find many guys my height in college ball that weigh more than I do. Also transferring out is Daniel Camps; he's a 6'5" wing who got 4.6/2.7/0.7 on a sterling .618/.333/.591 shooting before heading for D2 Queens University in North Carolina.
The Norse also lost a couple of guys to graduation. One was 6'4" forward Chad Jackson who shot .492/.000/.600 en route to 8.1/5.5/2.1 per game. He was second on the team in offensive rebounding, which is no mean feat for a man his size. Reserve G Jordan Jackson also exhausted his eligibility, taking 3.8 PPG with him out the door. Finally, erstwhile shooter Anthony Monaco left the team for undisclosed reasons; a cursory Google search did not shed an light on his motivation or where he ended up.
Rising senior Jalen Billups is a 6'6" center. He put up a game line of 11.1/5.9/0.6 on .696/.000/.625 shooting and added a block% of 6.7%, good for 112th in the nation. He gets after the glass hard on both ends and is a very efficient scorer. He's joined by rising senior guard Tyler White, himself the proud owner of a 10.2/1.9/1.2 line on .398/.377/.618 shooting; 66 of his 109 made buckets last year were from beyond the arc.
It gets a little thin after that. Rising senior guard Todd Johnson went for 6 PPG and hit 52 threes (and 8 twos!), but he's only 5'9" and isn't much more than a standing shooter. Wings Deontae Cole and Cole Murray each went 32-81 (.395) from deep last year. At 6'7", Murray is listed as a guard despite being the tallest player on the roster.
The Norse bring in a couple of freshman big men in Brennan Gillis and Drew McDonald. Gillis is a 6'7" forward who was all-state at Ben Davis High School in Indiana. He guarded 1-5 in high school and his defense will be the skill that gets him on the court first in college. He won't be guarding 1-5 at this level though. McDonald is a flex four who can play on the post or facing the basket. He has range out to the arc, but his jumper could use some additional consistency. He'll likely be the only opponent the Muskies face who is also a member of his school's golf team.
First year coach, stepping up to a bigger conference, still transitioning to D1? That doesn't sound like a recipe for instant success. The path from D2 to success at the D1 level is a long one, and the Norse are just setting out on it. The difference between these teams is most starkly evidenced in the fact that NKU's starting center is only an inch taller than Ed Sumner, who may well be starting at the one for Xavier at some point this year. This isn't a game where Xavier should stumble.