Morgan State brings back five players that started last year on a team that went 17-14 and lost to Hampton in the finals of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. This year with the returning experience the Bears have, supplemented by some new talent, they're picked to win the MEAC conference.
"I would tell you that Morgan State, they have the makings of an NCAA Tournament team. They are the favorite in the MEAC," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said.
The Bears have a lot of size in their starting lineup. They return a double-double machine in Kevin Thompson inside. The 6-foot-9 center was named First-Team All District and Second-Team All-MEAC last year when he averaged 13.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Thompson isn't the only one though, as the Bears can start four guys over 6-foot-5, including wings DeWayne Jackson and Aric Brooks who are 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-6 respectively.
"They have tremendous size," Mack said. "Their post player especially, the big kid returning, Thompson, he's a load inside. We've got to be cognizant of that. They also have the kid DeWayne Jackson who's a phenomenal shooter. And so we recognize they're a very good opponent. They've got I think more size than you'd think a MEAC team would have, and they're going to win a lot of basketball games. We're going to try to make sure that's not Friday night."
No Tu, Walker gets the start
The biggest storyline heading into the game is that the Musketeers will be without superstar Tu Holloway. The senior was suspended for one game by the NCAA for a violation of rules that had to do with a summer league game.
"We're going to miss him on the floor tomorrow, but I think as a team we'll be over to come that," junior forward Jeff Robinson said. "In practices, we've gone with teams without him and we've worked on things like not having Tu in the lineup on certain plays or situational things. I think that's helped us. We've prepared for it pretty well."
According to the pre-game notes, it looks like senior transfer from Vanderbilt, Andre Walker, will get the start for Xavier in place of Holloway, while Mark Lyons will slide over and run the show from the point guard position.
Walker's size, at 6-foot-8, should give Xavier some added help inside and on the boards, considering the fact that he'll be playing with two other bigs in Jeff Robinson and Kenny Frease. Walker isn't really playing out of position on the perimeter though. He has been learning multiple positions since he arrived at Xavier, and his prior experience of four years in the SEC has helped prepare him for playing everywhere on the court.
"I'm pretty much ready for it. I played point my previous years at Vandy and played point in high school. I just happened to grow a little bit, so I think I'm ready for it," Walker said. "I've done basically fifty percent (of practice reps) at the four and fifty percent at the three. When I was recruited (Chris Mack) told me he wanted me to play inside and out, so I think I'm prepared for it."
Walker's teammates are well aware of his versatility going against him everyday in practice, and have a lot of confidence with him in the starting lineup. Robinson expects the additional size with Walker in the lineup to help the Muskies against Morgan State.
"Andre is a really good on the ball defender and off the ball defender," Robinson said. "He can guard two through five if he has to. He's a really smart player when it comes to guarding smaller guys. It will really help tomorrow with rebounding. They're a really good offensive rebounding team and the extra size in the lineup will help us a lot."
Focus on Defense
After the Bellarmine game, Mack said that the offense was fine for the most part, but that they needed to improve on the defensive side of the floor. The Knights hit 47 percent of their shots for their game and 56 percent in the first half.
According to Robinson, it wasn't schematics or technique as much as attention to detail and focus that they worked on most this week in practice.
"After the Bellarmine game, we worked a lot on concentrating throughout the whole possession on defense. We worked on transition, just making sure we're back on defense. We brushed up on a little bit of zone…. that's pretty much it," he said. "Concentration was the biggest thing we worked on. We got a little lazy on possessions against Bellarmine and they capitalized. We can't have that throughout the season."
Morgan State's size will present a challenge defensively, but Mack is more concerned with wing DeWayne Jackson than anything. The leading scorer for the Bears a year ago, Jackson averaged 14.5 points per game and was a First Team All-MEAC selection.
While his shooting percentage was low last season, he is a very capable shooter who shot 42 percent from the perimeter the season before last. His conscious is non-existent when it comes to letting it fly, so Mack's squad will have to make sure they don't lose their man and are disciplined.
"I think we're always progressing. I think on both ends of the floor, especially this early into the season, you're always going to continue to get better," Mack said. "I think we've had a really good week of practice. We needed to, because there were some things that we had to fix. So we'll find out tomorrow night how much progress we've made."
Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m.