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Xavier v. Bradley: Preview, matchup, keys to the game

Xavier takes on their second game in 24 hours with a Thanksgiving tilt against the Bradley Braves.

NCAA Basketball: Oakland at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

As season openers go, you can’t ask for one much better than Xavier’s, a 101-49 win over the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. Everything fired for the the Musketeers as they put the game in the stage of analytically final before the first half horn even sounded. Xavier will face (much) stronger opposition than Oakland this season, but you can only beat who takes the court against you. Xavier did that and more on Wednesday.

Bradley suffered the cruelest of fates last season. They won three games in three days to take the MVC crown, got to celebrate their title, and then never played an NCAA tournament game. The last time these teams met was also a tournament game, albeit not the tournament either team is looking for this year. Xavier knocked off Bradley on the way to winning the 1958 NIT.

Team Fingerprint:

Bradley made that NCAA run last year on the back of some great three point shooting. Nate Kennell was a large part of that and he is gone, but Brian Wardle’s teams have generally been judicious in picking their spots to strike from deep. To augment that, the Braves value the ball and shoot well from the line. They may not be explosive, but it’s fair to expect them to be solid offensively.

Defensively the Braves try to be solid as well, and that means not gambling for steals or trying to force turnovers at all. Bradley’s plan is generally to force contested shots, they blocked 12.6% of attempts against them last year, and then grab the rebound. That may change with shot blocker extraordinaire Koch Bar gone, but the Braves still have guys who can throw shots and get on the glass. Against the Rockets on Wednesday they tossed 23% of the shots against them.

Players:

Elijah Childs is here to block shots and, Wednesday at least, score some points. Childs is a 6-8 forward who will swat it if you throw it up. Terry Nolan and Ari Boya both return from last year as well. Boya is 7-1 and presents a challenge that Xavier’s new bigs did not face against Oakland. Nolan transferred from George Washington where he shot a lot and spent his first game for Bradley also shooting a lot. Sean East ran the point for the Braves and doled out eight assists against Toledo. Ja’Shon Henry remains Bradley’s most consistent performer as 6-6 forward. The one thing that Bradley brings that Oakland didn’t is functional size. This won’t be a walkover for X’s bigs.

Three questions:

- How well can Xavier recover? The Musketeers aren’t a deep team right now. Ben Stanley and Adam Kunkel getting shafted by the NCAA and three more players being ruled out due to Covid protocols left Xavier with eight rotation players, all of whom played significant minutes on Wednesday. No one got a break and the healthy walk-ons were noticeable by their absence. Three games in three days is tough with a full roster, let alone a depleted one.

- Can Xavier shoot this well? 39% from deep isn’t world beating, but it’s a massive improvement from most of last seasons efforts. Kyky Tandy and Nate Johnson were 11-19, the rest of the team was 2-12. Paul Scruggs figures to shoot better even as the other two cool a bit. A second game shooting the ball that well and Travis Steele will have a hard time suppressing a giddy smile.

- Do the Musketeers have a different gear? Bradley isn’t Seton Hall, but they aren’t Oakland either. There will be moments in this game where the Musketeers have to dig in a bit and not just run around scoring at will. Here’s where the newcomers, especially Dwon Odom, have a chance to show they can make a difference and start to solve the offensive woes that have plagued Xavier the last two seasons.

Three keys:

- Adjust: Oakland didn’t challenge Xavier in the post. Dionte Miles isn’t the stoutest of fellows, but he had his way getting position in the post. Jason Carter, Bryan Griffin, and Zach Freemantle had their way grabbing rebounds. That won’t be the case against Bradley.

- Keep spacing: Xavier shot the ball well in large part because their shooters were able to step into shots. Kyky Tandy especially benefited from space on the right wing where he was able to catch and shoot in rhythm. Toledo got 29 shots up from deep and made 39% of those. If Xavier does that, and shoots like they did against Oakland, they’ll win.

- Keep getting kills: Did you know Xavier counts kills? You will after just a minute of listening to the game on FS1 tomorrow. Jokes about the persistent reminders that defense occasionally is important aside, Xavier thrives when they shut down the other team. Lost in the Musketeers 101 points is the fact that Oakland did almost nothing offensively. That a collegiate team managed 12 points in 20 minutes is worth noting. The Muskies ended the game having held Oakland to a shooting line of .232/.226/.769 and forcing 16 turnovers. It’s worth suffering through a few more reminders to get defense like that.