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Xavier v. Niagara: Preview, matchups, keys to the game.

Basketball season is back, and it starts with a buy game at the Cintas.

NCAA Basketball: Niagara at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There is a long interminable stretch between college basketball season. Last year’s season ended with a tournament notable for its mere existence and a fun new format. Basketball had returned to March and April, to games played on the screen while a spring breeze drifted through windows opened to a more hopeful cold, to fanbases starved to see their team playing when it mattered again, even if that wasn’t in person.

Xavier was not one of those teams. For three straight years now the Musketeers have not played an NCAA tournament game. Their last game was a gut punch from which the program has not completely recovered. The ghosts of clean blocks being whistled and one of the nation’s best scorers disappearing have lingered on despite the cedar smudge of several new seasons. Xavier is stuck in a postseason miasma of Kent State games and a bracket no one cares about.

This season starts with the promise of being different. When the Purple Eagles of Niagara visit, the Cintas will be packed. Noise and fans will be back, as will a roster loaded with talent. Xavier returns their eight leading scorers and 81% of their minutes. Their coach is now in his fourth year. There is nothing new, nothing callow, about this team. The Musketeers should be good. Come 7:30PM, they’ll have the chance to start proving it. This journey should start to reach its peak on March 13th, 2022. On that date the bracket will be out. Xavier should be on it. 125 days. Basketball is back.

Team fingerprint

Slow and careful. In two years at the helm, Paulus has played at a glacial pace. We (obviously) don't have any meaningful data for this season yet, but there's little indicating that they'll be living in the open court this year. They've also never finished outside the top 25 in TO rate under Paulus, so that methodical approach appears to be paying off. They shoot an almost exactly average amount of threes.

On defense, Niagara actually forces a decent amount of turnovers under Paulus, landing inside the top 100 both years with him in charge. They're incredibly permissive around the arc, basically allowing opponents to fire at will from deep.

Players

Leading the line is 6'2" guard Marcus Hammond. He's a volume scorer with a gruesome shooting line, but he gobbles possessions and rebounds really well for a guard. His backcourt mate is Justin Roberts. Roberts is just 5'10" and an excellent shooter from deep, but he offers nil inside the arc and isn't much of a distributor.

Raheem Solomon, the team's third-leading scorer from last year, has ended his basketball career to focus on his studies. Greg Kuakumensah, a 6’6” forward, averaged 6.4 ppg last season and figures to grow into a starting role this year. He’ll try to help the five other seniors fill the void left by departing leading scorer Kobi Nwandu. Justin Roberts (7.4) and Jordan Cintron (7.3) are both also returning seniors who averaged over seven points in over 15 minutes. After that things thin in out in the form of 5’9” guard Shandon Brown, who scored only 2.5 points in over 20 minutes per game last year and shot a woeful 14.3% behind the arc, or the itinerant Sam Iorio, a career 37.5% three point shooter now playing at his third DI program.

Three questions:

Who starts? This will be one of the main issues facing Travis Steele all season. Having a wealth of talent isn’t a problem, but getting everyone playing time is. Will Steele go small and run all of the available guards out there around Jerome Hunter in the post? Will he go huge and run Hunter at the three with Jack Nunge and Dieonte Miles down low? What happens tonight won’t be the answer to the issue, but it will inform that answer.

Where does Kyky Tandy fit? In last season’s opener, Tandy played 24 minutes, scored 18 points, and dished out seven assists. It was a breakout game from a player a lot picked as a breakout star. Tand broke the 20 minute mark just three more times the rest of the way, equal to the amount of times he never left the bench. For whatever reason, Kyky returned to Xavier this season. He’ll be slowed by bronchitis a bit tonight, but you can bet that every member of Xavier Nation will be watching to see how much, and where, he plays.

Can Jerome Hunter rebound and Dwon Odom shoot? Yes, that’s two questions. Dwon Odom’s shooting woes and the impact it would have if he becomes competent have been much discussed. He’s a nightmare matchup who becomes essentially unguardable if he can make a jumper. Jerome Hunter is a slightly more strange case. He’s an incredible athlete who hasn’t really turned that into defense or rebounding. Hunter had a 3.4% OReb rate and 14% DReb rate last season. He essentially rebounded like Paul Scruggs despite being three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. If he increases that output this season, Xavier becomes all the more versatile.

Three keys:

Keep the crowd involved: Covid isn’t gone, but normal life has mostly returned. That means a full Cintas for the first time since March 7th of 2020. In that game Naji Marshall played all 40 minutes as X lost a heart breaker. Some fans have been back since then, but not in abundance. Xavier won’t have to do much to get the place jumping tonight (and I’m giddy at the thought) but a bit of showmanship won’t hurt.

Bury the game: This should not be a contest. All respect to Niagara, but no one is picking them into the tournament or as a dark horse Final Four contender. Heat Check CBB does not have them on their list of six rebound teams to watch. Xavier has been called all those things. What the Musketeers need is time to gel. Put this game to sleep early and let guys get used to playing with each other while Travis Steele starts to sort the rotation.

Enjoy it: Even here in NE Ohio the day has dawned as if even the weather is ready for college basketball. It’s warm, sunny, and just about perfect. April and baseball season didn’t bring any hope to spring eternal for Ohio baseball fans this year, and both football teams are mired at 5-4. College basketball is different. Xavier presents a reason for real sporting hope this fall and winter. Let’s all soak it in. COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS BACK