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Xavier v. Kent State: Preview and keys to the game

Kent State represents a step up from Niagara in a game Xavier should still be winning.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Kent State vs Ohio Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier tends to meet Kent State in these types of games. Like most people who end up faced with Kent State, it comes as something of a placeholder. A fallback between more desirable options and an actual community college. Not since 1989 has Xavier lost to KSU, not since then have the teams met after December. This isn’t a buy game, it’s one of those games that crops up in the early season where a mid-major has a chance for a huge win and a big program has a chance to round into form. It’s a trap game.

The team looking to spring the trap this year has not played a game yet. After Xavier, Kent plays a non DI game, James Madison, and then another non-DI game. Kent plays just two more KenPom projected top 100 teams the rest of the way, West Virginia and then Ohio. In the decade Rob Senderoff has spent at Kent this has generally been his method of operation and it has generally resulted in a Golden Flash team that lingers near the top of the MAC but is never quite good enough to get over the top. Kent has been to the tournament once in Senderoff’s time there.

Team fingerprint

The data on this year’s team is non-existent, but there is a pattern to the way Senderoff’s teams play. The tempo will be low to mid range. Never has once of his teams played faster than 75th in the nation, only once below the 200 mark. If Senderoff has his way, the game will be played right around a bang average tempo. If he has his way the game will also feature a lot of Kent State offensive rebounds. Since 2015 the Flashes have only been outside the top 100 and generally land in the top 50, with a peak in 2017 at fifth. Senderoff’s charges will hammer the offensive glass.

Beyond that, the Flashes tend to be a portrait of mediocrity. That’s not meant as a slight, simply a recognition that they land near the middle of the national pack in nearly everything. Last year’s team offensive rebounded well and knocked down their free throws. Enough pieces have returned to indicate that will be the case again.

Players

Tervell Beck is Kent State’s leading returning scorer. (Both Danny Pippen and Mike Nuga departed). Beck is a great free throw shooter who scored 11.7 per game and knocked down 45.5% of his threes in limited attempts. The Cleveland kid is a good offensive rebound who is only hampered by his proclivity for turning the ball over. Malique Jacobs is the only other returning Golden Flash to average double figures at exactly 10 points per game. Jacobs is another good free throw shooter and also posted a solid 22.3% assist rate.

Giovanni Santiago and Justyn Hamilton also return as vital cogs in the Kent machine. Santiago led the team in minutes last year and buried 44% of his 111 three point attempts. He’s a scorer who can top 20 if he’s hot and impact the game, either for good or evil, with his passing even if his shot won’t fall. Hamilton is the leading returning rebounder and is a menace on the offensive glass. Jeremiah Hernandez is the last returning KSU player to appear in every game. He struggled mightily offensively as a freshman but distinguished himself as an on ball defender.

Senderoff loaded up on transfers with Andrew Garcia, DJ Johnson, and Sincere Carry all joining the backcourt as upperclassmen. Garcia comes from Georgia, where he averaged over eight points per game and was an 1,000 point scorer. Johnson played 25 games at Rhode Island last season and shot the three well (38.5%) but didn’t impact the game much elsewhere. Finally, Carry comes from Duquesne, where he appeared only five times last season but was an effective starting point guard his first two seasons. He should add some stability to the Flash back line.

Three questions

- How long until Ben Stanley can play? The big news yesterday was that it was Stanley who had recused himself from playing against Niagara in the season opener because he still didn’t feel right on his repaired knee yet. Stanley will be a big part in helping Xavier on the glass, where they struggled, and post offense, where they struggled. X needs him back.

- Can Xavier make an impact on the post? In X’s first game they had, maybe, one basket off a standard post touch. That is appalling. Xavier isn’t facing a Kent State team blessed with enormous size outside of Justyn Hamilton. Jack Nunge and Dieonte Miles both struggled with establishing post position against Niagara, an improvement there would help guards get the ball inside and, hopefully, lead to some actual post scoring.

- Will the Musketeers improve? Xavier fans massively overreacted to the season opening win against the Purple Eagles. That said, the Musketeers didn’t look good in that contest. X needs to show something else in order to justify some of the preseason hype they received.

Three keys

- Close off the defensive glass: After a shaky first half, X hammered Niagara on the Purple Eagles offensive end, snaring 85% of the Niagara misses. Kent State is both generally better, and better at catching their own misses. In order to not let another lesser team linger, Xavier will need to keep up their defensive rebounding effort. If they don’t, the Golden Flashes will make them pay.

- Get the ball inside: Last game the Musketeers were just bad in the paint. That’s been covered in depth. The ball didn’t get there enough and, when it did, X made just 44% of their two point attempts. Dieonte Miles showed he can score by cleaning up misses and Jack Nunge has a career of being a back to the basket threat. Xavier must emphasize that, because another 29% three point shooting night with equally poor interior play is a recipe for 1-1.

- Give the fans a reason: Tuesday the Cintas was ready to explode and then X played something of a damp squib. On a Friday, one assumes the student section will be well lubricated pre-weekend and once again ready to go. While close games are exciting, another one against a team that Xavier is projected to beat by 13 could lead to another frustrated atmosphere at home.