This may be a match-up of two freshman to start. Thompson started both exhibition games while Memphis transfer Antonio Barton was nursing a left leg injury. Barton is expected back and will likely play plenty, but Thompson is the expected starter at this point. He did a good job taking care of the ball in the two exhibitions, and he can shoot it a little bit. Randolph's performance in the season-opener was impressive, but the competition is about to jump up several levels on the freshman for game two. Last year X turned the ball over 19 times against the Vols, which can't happen again if they want to pull off the win shorthanded. If Randolph can take care of the ball the same way he did in game one (one turnover), that will be a huge deal for the Musketeers. They're going to need as many minutes as they can get out of the freshman.
Slight Edge Xavier
Semaj Christon So (6-3, 190) vs Jordan McRae Sr (6-6, 185)
McRae is one of the more versatile and complete players in the SEC. He emerged as the team's go-to scoring option last year, but he can also rebound, pass and defend. He averaged 15.7 points per game while shooting 35.5 percent from 3-point range and grabbing 4.1 rebounds. Xavier is likely going to try and keep it tight on defense to force the Vols to beat them with jump shots, but they have to make sure McRae doesn't get going. This is a revenge game for Christon. Last year Tennessee limited him to just five points on 1-of-9 shooting, as Josh Richardson used his length and athleticism to contain him. The Vols were very physical with Christon though, which may not be allowed this year. They also won' be able to slide under him in the lane. It will be interesting to see how much the referees change the way Tennessee defends the Musketeers' best player. Don't expect the Vols to hold him to five points again. With all the injuries, Xavier will need him to stay on the court for the whole game.
Slight Edge Xavier
Erik Stenger Sr (6-8, 207) vs Josh Richardson Jr (6-6, 190)
Richardson is a guy who made big strides last year, and is looking to increase his role heading into this season. He earned minutes last year because of his length and defensive prowess, as he showed in the game against Xavier by locking up Christon, but he also improved as a scoring threat and finished the year averaging 7.9 points per game. Preseason reports claim that he's enhanced his 3-point accuracy in the offseason, so Xavier will have to be conscious of that. This is our best guess for what Xavier will do at the three spot. They could use the extra rebounding help that the bigger lineup with Stenger and Philmore in at the same time provides, and Stenger proved valuable against these guys last year in 20 minutes of action. He will have to take better care of the ball this time around, as he turned it over three times last meeting between these two. Tennessee has to get the nod at this position, because while Richardson isn't great, the Musketeers don't really have a three in the lineup tonight.
Slight Edge Tennessee
Isaiah Philmore Sr (6-8, 230) vs Jarnell Stokes Jr (6-8, 260)
Stokes is a beast. The preseason All-American is the only returning "major" conference player in America who averaged a double-double last season (13.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg). The hardest part about playing against Stokes is keeping him off of the offensive glass where he can change the game with second-chance points. Xavier should have some confidence, knowing that they limited him to just six points and three rebounds (zero offensive) last season. Regardless of how Xavier decides to defend this Tennessee team, they're going to need Philmore to play like a man. The Vols are not only huge, but they're physical and athletic. Philmore is going to have to play with as much energy and toughness as he's ever shown on the glass and the defensive end. He played decent against these guys last year, finishing second on Xavier's team with eight points and third with seven rebounds, but Tennessee is even bigger this year with Jeronne Maymon back. Philmore's play is going to be critical in this game.
Moderate Edge Tennessee
Matt Stainbrook Jr (6-10, 263) vs Jeronne Maymon Sr (6-8, 260)
Maymon is a huge addition for the Volunteers this season, after redshirting last year due to a knee injury. In 2011-12, Maymon led the team in scoring (14.2) and rebounding (7.9) in SEC play as a junior. Last year, Tennessee seemed like a big team with just Stokes and their bigger wings. Adding Maymon into the mix (instead of the graduated Kenny Hall) is going to make it really difficult to defend and keep both of them off of the glass at the same time. Stainbrook could very well be the deciding factor in this game. Xavier flat-out needs him and Christon to carry this team. The Musketeers are going to have more depth and balance this season, but not with the injuries, not this early in the season and not in this game. They need their two best players to be better than Tennessee's best players. X will really rely on Stainbrook's offense, as the other post players can help on the glass and defensively, but he's the only one that brings legitimate offensive firepower.
Slight Edge Tennessee
Xavier Bench vs Tennessee Bench
Last year Tennessee was a tough, defensive minded team that struggled to score. This year they'll still be a defensive team, but they have added some offensive firepower. Antonio Barton shot 41 percent from three while at Memphis, and he'll undoubtedly play an important role as a shooter and facilitator on this Tennessee team. Freshman standout guard Robert Hubbs is also going to see a lot of minutes because of his offensive prowess and perimeter shooting. He played extensively in both exhibitions, was 4-for-11 from three in the two games, and finished with 17 points in the first game against Florida Southern. The Vols also have another freshman in A.J. Davis, son of former NBA'er Antonio Davis, who is a 6-9, 212 pound versatile forward. He played a lot in both exhibitions, but wasn't very productive, and will likely see his minutes cut in the regular season. Xavier is going to be short-handed on the bench in this one - it's just a matter of how short-handed. We know Landen Amos is out, are rather certain Dee Davis is out, and then there are varying levels of skepticism about the prospects of Myles Davis and Justin Martin playing. Obviously having Davis and/or Martin would be huge for this team, but if they don't have them then there only real options off the bench are Jalen Reynolds, James Farr and maybe some Kamall Richards. Reynolds and Farr should both find some minutes, and could prove to be valuable if they can stay out of foul trouble and rebound. Reynolds in particular has the physical attributes to match-up inside with Tennessee a little bit better than X's other big men.
Slight Edge Tennessee
Without knowing exactly who is available for Xavier, and more importantly how some of the guys will react in a big-time match-up like this, it's tough to make an educated guess. Cuonzo Martin has instilled imposing physicality and hard-nosed defense since arriving at Tennessee, and they've built the roster around that style of play. They've added some pieces offensively that will help, but still expect this to be a hard-fought, low-scoring slugfest. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Xavier change it up defensively and go zone or even something a little gimmicky with Tennessee being a below-average shooting team and XU's roster being short-handed. Stainbrook and Christon were the best players on the court against Gardner-Webb, and they'll have to play that same way if not better against Tennessee to have a chance at pulling off this win.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 64 Xavier 56