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Xavier v. Morgan State: preview, keys to the game

Basketball is back!

Kentucky Wesleyan v Xavier Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Just 237 days ago, I was in Cintas for the opening round NIT game against Cleveland State. In what would turn out the be the final game of the Steele Era, the arena could hardly have been more openly apathetic. I've been at more lively funerals.

Now it’s November and not March and things have changed. There’s a sense in which that’s true every season of college basketball, but it seems especially true for Xavier this year. Travis Steele is still head coach, but at a different school. Sean Miller is no longer former Xavier coach; he’s the current head man. Everything old is new again. Hope for a fresh season often peaks before the ball goes up, but it seems more tangible for Muskies fans this year.

Previewing the first game of the year is always kind of empty. Morgan State’s KenPom page, like Xavier’s, is almost entirely full of zeroes. What little data there is exists through the magic of extrapolation, not anything they’ve actually done this year. There’s little actual information on what to expect from the Bears tonight.

What we do have is based on who they have in charge and what their personnel brings to the table. Their head man is Kevin Broadus, a coach who controversy has stalked to some extent in his career. He likes to play fast but is otherwise a bit of a diet Mick Cronin in terms of strategy. His teams generally don’t shoot well or play pretty, but they crash the offensive glass and shoot a ton of free throws. Their defense thrives on forcing turnovers but is fairly porous if the opponent doesn’t turn the ball over.

Wing Malik Miller is probably the danger man. He led the team in PPG and RPG and was second in APG, but he has an injury history that has made his contributions sporadic. He’s 6’4”, which might pose a problem if he gets matched up against a bigger wing like Colby Jones.

Guard De’Torrion Ware averaged 10.6 PPG last year and is a shameless gunner. His EFG% last year was under 40%, which is absolutely awful. Imagine how much you need to shoot to get to double figures when you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a boat. Guard Isaiah Burke is the exact opposite, a bit of a three-point sniper who picks his spots.

The front line is a mish-mash of transfers from the JuCo ranks. One of them is going to have to come good for Morgan State to do anything this year, but I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pretending like I’m enough of an expert on two-year schools and their departing big men to tell you which.

The bottom line is that Morgan State is here to pay the bills and Xavier is here to get a Q4 win. Basketball is back!

Three questions

-Is Zach Freemantle finally arriving? After a monster freshman campaign, Freemantle’s development stagnated a bit, or maybe just didn’t take off the way Xavier fans had hoped. He then started this year by getting suspended, but Sean Miller described him as the team’s best player in the exhibition game. If he’s hungry and locked in, Xavier has two of the best big men in the league.

-How does the backcourt shake out? Adam Kunkel is not 100% due to an ankle issue right now, but he’s going to feature in one of the guard slots going forward. Neither he nor fellow veteran guard Souley Boum is a true point; the only one of those on the roster is freshman Desmond Claude. Today won’t tell us too much about what the starting backcourt will look like in February, but it’s the first step in getting it sorted.

-How long will it take for this to be a Miller team? Sean Miller is still working in a bit of a limbo in regards to what, if any, punishment the NCAA will bring down on him for the stuff that other people did at Arizona when he was there. More importantly, he described himself as “a new coach” during the postgame presser from the exhibition game. That was in regards to the players executing his system and some of the flaws we saw on the floor. It’s going to take time for this team to look how we’re expecting.

Three keys

-Get out early. I know wins and losses are what really matter, but it would be nice to see Xavier just hit the floor motivated and blow the doors off of a lesser opponent. The sooner this thing is analytically final, the better we’ll all feel. I’m looking for something more like the beating X put on Oakland in 2020 and less like their three-point win over Niagara last year.

-Show something on defense. I don’t think Morgan State is going to be an offensive juggernaut this year, so it’s hard to show too much on the defensive end against them. Everybody and his mom has identified team defense as an issue for X this year, and Coach Miller has been realistic about the individual limitations he sees on the roster. Some hope that the Muskies will be something other than permissive on the defensive end would be a good takeaway from this one.

-Welcome basketball back. There are games on right now. There will be games on until the small hours of the morning. The slate isn’t full of dynamic matchups, but that barely matters. We are once again in basketball season, and I can’t wait to watch it develop.