When last we saw Xavier in intercollegiate action, they were raging against the dying of the light in a Sweet 16 game against Texas on March 24. The Longhorns got out early and, despite the best efforts of a molten Adam Kunkel, the Muskies couldn't reel them back in. A season that began in uncertainty ended with a return to the second weekend of the tournament.
Now everything old is new again. Of the 200 minutes played for Xavier that day, just 24 came from players who will be suiting up tonight. Des Claude got 23 of them, and Kam Craft picked up 1; they contributed a combined 3/1/1 with 3 turnovers. The summer will have likely done both of those guys some good.
The most important carryover from that game is Sean Miller. Unquestionably the best two-time coach in Xavier history, Miller got to work in the offseason restocking the roster to account for the exodus of Musketeers matriculating, transferring out, or being felled by injury. We won't have a final answer to how well that process went until sometime in early spring; today, on the cusp of winter, we'll get our first real peek behind the curtain.
They obviously haven't put anything on wax yet this season, so it's hard to say what Robert Morris will try to pull out tonight. Under current head coach Andrew Toole, they've generally sold out for turnovers on the defensive end. If they don't get those, they're pretty permeable in all other aspects of defense. Their offense plays slow but makes up for it by also being really bad.
It's hard to pick out a starting lineup for an unfamiliar team in the season opener, but one thing that seems certain is that senior guard Josh Corbin will be the first option for RoMo. He's an abject gunner for whom volume is a substitute for accuracy, but he'll get his shots up, especially from deep, under any circumstances.
A pair of high-major transfers also figure to play key roles. Former Butler forward Markeese Hastings is a big time rebounder who loves to shoot threes despite apparently hating to make them. Guard Justice Williams transfered in from LSU, where he didn't get enough minutes to give us data worth drawing conclusions from.
Those three will fit in around wing Jackson Last and forward Stephaun Walker. Last is a 6'5" and a subpar shooter; Walker is 6'7" and pounds the glass. Walker shot almost 60% from the floor and 75% from the line last year. These two combined for 9.3 fouls per 40 minutes last year, which is a lot.
Beyond that, depth is a functionally unknowable issue. Will guard TJ Wainwright step up from his 2/1/1 line on 29% shooting from last year? Will Chris Ford's 31 FGA in 31 D1 games from last year blossom into a viable forward? Will freshmen Ben Krystkowiak and Alvaro Folgueiras hit the ground running as immediate impact guys? Some combination of those four will get their first shots at answering those questions tonight.
- What is the rotation? This question won’t get answered tonight, but we’ll at least get the start of an answer. Xavier is very much a work in progress with only two returning players. The entire team is in flux. Trying to sort out exactly who goes where is the first order of business for Sean Miller.
- Where do the European bigs fit? All of these questions are variations on a theme. One of those variations is figuring out where the talented big men from across the pond slot in. Whether any of them are going to go inside and bang or whether any of them are pick and pop four players starts to get answered tonight. Coach Miller will be deciding who starts, who brings the life off the bench, who goes where. The three guys with the sort of hard to say names all figure to factor in.
What is going on? There’s just no real way of knowing what will happen tonight. Desmond Claude will start. A betting man might wager that Trey Green will as well. After that, things are completely up in the air. Xavier has never faced a situation like this; most college basketball teams have never faced a situation like this. It’s not the result of scandal or a disaster or really anything negative, but it’s a massive change nonetheless.
- Get the win: Simple, right? RMU isn’t a great team, but they are a team. Xavier is a collection of parts at the moment. The goal tonight is just not to be one of those early season upsets that is a big problem come March.
- Get ahead early: For a team not certain about much of anything, some room to work with would be nice. Forcing Coach Miller to stick with the front of an unsettled rotation won’t help anything.
- Take care of the ball: The Colonials will work hard to force turnovers. That is about the only definite about this game. Xavier’s backcourt is Des Claude, two transfers, and three freshman. They will need to learn to mesh together quickly in order to prevent this turning into a mess along the lines of Niagara two years ago or Fairfield last season.