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Know Your Non-conference Opportunity: Phil Knight Legacy

Xavier could spend the Thanksgiving weekend gorging themselves on good wins, but first they have to avoid getting seated at the kids’ table. Will I keep straining this metaphor until it breaks? Keep scrolling to find out!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament West Regional-Arkansas vs Gonzaga
Thanksgiving is the biggest drinking holiday of the year
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We covered the Xavier v. Florida game in detail last week, but that’s just the jumping off point for that tournament for Xavier. It’s also probably the most important non-conference game of the season for X. If they win it, they’ll probably end up with 3 games that will show up in Quad 1 to show for their trip to the Phil Knight Legacy. If they lose it, they’re going to miss out on at least one of those opportunities and potentially more. Anyone who watched the team sleepwalk to an opening loss to Pacific in November of 2012 or drop three straight over the Thanksgiving weekend of the next season knows what an unpleasant prospect that is.

Team Preseason Torvik Tier on Neutral Court
Gonzaga 1 Q1
Duke 5 Q1
Xavier 20 Q1
Florida 27 Q1
Purdue 28 Q1
West Virginia 32 Q1
Oregon State 274 Q4
Portland State 302 Q4

The top two


The Zags have to be the prohibitive favorite here. Led by legendary coach Mark Few, who has led them to everything but a national championship, they also have the advantage of being based in the same time zone the games will be contested in. Few’s teams have only ever been offensive juggernauts; they’ve finished outside of the top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency just 6 times in Few’s 23 seasons in charge. They do it by mercilessly pounding the paint, where a series of high-efficiency bigs and slashing guards have given them free reign around the rim. They don’t shoot many threes or crash the glass hard, but why bother? Their defenses have been excellent based mostly on forcing bad shots and allowing no second chances. Forcing turnovers isn’t a focus; they’ve just been okay at it under Few.

Their biggest loss from last season is Chet Holmgren, a big wing who came three total boards from averaging a double-double. He and his 14/9.9/1.9 line left for the NBA. Also in the professional ranks is PG Andrew Nembhard, who averaged 5.8 APG in addition to good scoring numbers. Anchoring the lineup will be returning senior Drew Timme, who averaged a super efficient 18.4/6.8/2.8 and shot 61% inside the arc. I hope he shaved that silly mustache. Also coming back are wing Julian Strawther (11.8/5.4/1.0) and guard Rasir Bolton (11.2/2.4/2.3, 46% 3P%). Coming in are 7’ big man Efton Reid, who averaged 6 and 4 as a freshman at LSU last year, and Malachi Smith, a 6’4” guard who put up 19.9/6.7/3.0 on .493/.407/.827 as a Chattanooga Moc last season.

The Zags are going to be tough this year, just like they are every year. They lost a couple of big pieces and more or less went out and replaced them. Mark Few has been a staple of the program through two decades and one DUI; he’ll probably have Gonzaga roll through the conference once again before taking their chances as a high seed in the NCAA tournament once again.


One thing Duke has in common with Gonzaga is that they are also expected to be very good this year. That’s where a lot of the similarities end. While Gonzaga still has their long-standing man in charge, Duke is starting a new era under Jon Scheyer. It’s hard to know exactly what Scheyer will bring to the table as a head coach, but there will likely be some growing pains along the way. I’m sure the Duke fanbase is in no way stocked with spoiled fair-weather fans and that they’ll take the odd down performance with patience and understanding.

Gonzaga brought back their coach and most of their roster; Duke does neither. Leading scorer and rebounder Paolo Banchero (17.2/7.8/3.2) is gone; so too is second-leading scorer Wendell Moore, Jr (13.4/5.3/4.4). Moving further down the scoring list sequentially, you’ll find that Trevor Keels (11.5/3.4/2.7) and Mark Williams (11.2/7.4/0.9) have also departed for the arguably greener pastures of professional basketball. The departure of AJ Griffin (10.4/3.9/1.0) makes it a clean sweep of the top five scorers not returning.

Of players who played more than 12 mpg OR averaged more than 4.5 PPG, only guard Jeremy Roach (8.6/2.4/3.2) returns. Before you cry real tears for Duke, though, get a load of who is coming in to fill the spots. Dereck Lively II and Kyle Filipowski are a combined 14 feet tall and 2 of the top 4 players in the class; they’ll expect to give Duke a dominant post pairing. Dariq Whitehead is a 6’6” wing who is crazy athletic and boasts an advanced skill set that landed him as the #2 player in the class. Mark Mitchell is a 6’8” power forward with a motor that doesn’t quit on the glass at both ends and the ability to finish around the rim with either hand. Tyrese Proctor is a 6’4” guard out of Australia who has deep range on his jumper and can “get into the lane at will” according to one scouting report. All of those guys are comfortably in the top 30. Sniper/guard Jaden Schutt is - according to 24/7 - #69. Christian Reeves is a true seven footer who is a bit of a project but has huge upside.

Adding to that are three immediately eligible transfers. Jacob Grandison is a guard out of Illinois who averaged 9.6 PPG on 41% from beyond the arc last year. Also, he’s 24 years old. Ryan Young comes from Northwestern, where he averaged 9.0 and 4.2. He’s a 6’10” center who goes to work on the glass at both ends but has some limitations due to foul trouble. Finally, 6’6”, 220-pound big wing Kale Catchings comes over from Harvard. He’s a good defender who can score at all three levels but does most of his work in the paint.

That’s 10 new players as well as a new coach for the Blue Devils. They’ve certainly gone from strength to strength on paper, but - as recent Xavier seasons can attest - there’s more to college basketball than just winning the offseason with roster construction. The proof will ultimately have to come on the court, but there’s enough potential in this group that anything less than a second weekend tournament run will have to be considered a bit of a disappointment. Fortunately, Duke’s fans are knowledgeable and not at all spoiled or fickle and they’ll understand that sometimes down years are to be expected during a coaching transition.

I’ll be back soon with a dive into the stacked mid-pack of the field and what promises to be a cursory look at the two teams Xavier is trying to avoid.