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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Eastern Kentucky

After three games in three days, Xavier will get a luxurious TWO WHOLE DAYS off before taking on EKU!

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Kentucky at Louisville dJamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember being young? I do, vaguely. I’m still close enough to my prime that it’s not so much a question of what I can/could do, but a question of how many days in a row I can/could do it before needing to spend a week recovering. I only ask because, after playing three games in three days to kick off the season (and for some of these guys, their college careers), Xavier will take Saturday and Sunday off from games before getting right back into it on Monday against EKU.

EKU played and defeated Alice Lloyd last year, which is only noteworthy in that they’re an NAIA school and not a particularly impressive one. In D1 play, the Colonels played just three KenPom tier A or tier B games and lost them by a combined total of 105 points. They staggered to a 6-12 start before reeling off 6 straight wins that had them in the catbird seat in conference play. A shock loss to KenPom #337 SIU Edwardsville - the worst D1 opponent on a schedule where claiming that dubious title took some doing - dropped them back under .500 and set them up to a stagger to the line that ultimately saw them losing to Belmont for a third time in seven weeks to wind down the season.

Coach AW Hamilton begins his third year in charge at Eastern. He cut his coaching teeth at Hargrave Military Academy (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), where he compiled an impressive 237-22 record and won a couple of national coach of the year awards between 2011 and 2017. He has had less success at EKU so far, but he runs an almost comically up-tempo game plan that focuses on forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. His teams have never rebounded or shot particularly well and there are points to be had if you can hold onto the ball, but getting that accomplished may be a challenge for Xavier’s young back court.

Key departures

Guard Ty Taylor II put up 12.3/3.7/1.4 as a senior last year, but he shot 35% from the field to get there and didn’t distribute very well. He was the definition of a volume scorer and didn’t bring much to the table beyond that. Lachlan Anderson was a forward who managed to be third on the team in rebounds despite being seventh in minutes, posting a game line of 7.0/4.5/0.6 in just over 18 minutes per outing. Both those guys have graduated, and that’s about it in terms of meaningful losses.

Key returnees

Everyone else!

Rising junior guard Jomaru Brown brings back his 18.4/3.9/2.7 game line. He was third in the country in usage rate last year at 36.9% despite posting an ORtg of 84.7. He shot 38% from the floor and turned the ball over a lot. Similarly efficient on the offensive end is rising senior JacQuess Hobbes. He’s 6’2” and can’t really shoot, but his primary value is on the defensive end, where he’s the point of EKU’s disruptive defense. He posted a 5% steal percentage last season, good for 5th in the nation. He’s a career 39.8% shooter on twos and 23.2% on threes. When he steals it, the best thing he can do is hand it to a teammate immediately.

The only other guard help returning is the delightfully named Russhard Cruickshank. He’s a 6’0” rising senior who made nearly as many threes (37) as he attempted twos (39). He doesn’t do too badly distributing, as his 2.1 APG attest, but he’s mostly out there to chuck it from the cheap seats.

Michael Moreno - a 6’7”, 220-pound forward - was the team’s efficiency hero as a freshman. He put up a game line of 8.5/6.1/1.3, an ORtg of 112.8, and clobbered the offensive glass. He was also 40-114 (35.1%) from deep. He figures to be a huge part of the attack this season. Joining him in the frontcourt is rising junior Tre King. He’s 6’8”, 225, and put up a game line of 11.3/5.1/0.6 last season. He was 3-20 from deep but stayed active on the glass on both ends and posted excellent defensive stats. He’s a prolific mid-range shooter who converted those at a 44% rate last year.

Incoming players

Cooper Robb is a junior transfer from Charlotte who was ruled immediately eligible on the grounds that the NCAA could be bothered that day. He’s a career 38% three-point shooter who will be tasked with shooting lots of threes of EKU.

Also incoming is West Virginia transfer Brandon Knapper, who is also immediately eligible after transferring in over the summer. He played for Hamilton at Hargrave and put up good numbers there, including shooting 39% from deep as a senior. He never really found a groove under Huggins, but he’ll get every chance to succeed at EKU and won’t even have to pay penance for a year to get that shot.

Seriously, what is with all this immediate eligibility but Ben Stanley can’t play? I’m gonna die mad about this.

Outlook

The good news is that EKU brought back a lot of depth and added some guys who are great fits for their system. The bad news is that the guys they brought back were from a team that wasn’t particularly good to begin with. I think Hamilton has this team on a solid trajectory, and their defensive style will cause opponents fits. They’ll ultimately be weighed down by ineffective offense in the half court that will hurt them if they can’t speed the game up, but they’re just the type of bad team that can pinch some really good wins. This is a good challenge for X.