Xavier will take on Division II Northwood today at 2 pm in the team's only public exhibition game of the preseason.
Here are five things fans can keep an eye on during the exhibition:
1. Sumner, London and Gates
The most exciting part of Saturday for Xavier fans will undoubtedly be getting a chance to see Edmond Sumner, Makinde London and Kaiser Gates all on the floor. Sumner more so than any player on the roster will likely influence the Musketeers' ceiling this season. His readiness and ability to run the team at the point guard position will dictate Xavier's potential.
London and Gates are both wild cards for this year's team, a dynamic made more interesting by the pair playing the same position. London has a bit of an advantage after redshirting last year and Gates missing a few weeks of preseason practice due to a concussion, but both bring an entertaining style of play to the court. Either could play a meaningful role off the bench for this team, but at the same time either one could be a total non-factor and barely see the court. Every opportunity will be important for them to earn trust from the coaching staff and their teammates when they're on the floor.
2. Starting Lineup
The five players who start against Northwood may not be Chris Mack's "true" starting five that he's going to start next week against Miami (OH), but it will still be intriguing to see which group he runs out there considering his different options.
Will he again go the route of starting smaller like he did in the closed scrimmage against an undersized Illinois team which allows him to get his top five players on the court at the same time in Edmond Sumner, Myles Davis, Remy Abell, Trevon Bluiett and Jalen Renolds? Or will he try a more traditional lineup with James Farr joining Reynolds in the frontcourt, moving one of the perimeter players (likely Davis or Abell) out of the rotation?
For Saturday's purposes, the starting lineup storyline may be more compelling from a position battle standpoint than anything else. Mack could be using the opportunity to evaluate different lineups, or he could use it to send a message to different players heading into the final week of preseason practice. As the real season begins, it will be fun to track which units start together.
Following the lead of his predecessor Sean Miller, Chris Mack's philosophy on his team preparing for and matching up against other opponents has been "do what we do." Or, in other words, we believe in our players and our system, so let's make the opponent adjust to us. In that vein, it would seem that he'd prefer to set his starting five and leave them in place until adjustments are deemed necessary, as opposed to switching them up on a game-by-game basis to optimize match-ups. At the same time, Mack has shown a willingness to switch up his starters for various reasons multiple times throughout past seasons.
Taking care of the basketball is always a huge point of emphasis for the Xavier coaches. However, this year they're turning the team over to a redshirt freshman and a sophomore that played very limited minutes last season in Sumner and Larry Austin respectively. In addition to the youth at the point position, this is a team that has a tendency to play loose and with confidence, which at times may lead to an extra miscue here and there.
Despite a solid outing against Illinois, the turnover column is one area where the Musketeers need to see immediate improvement. This team can absorb a few extra turnovers with Edmond Sumner being aggressive trying to make plays at point guard as opposed to Dee Davis' more steady distributing approach, but there were a few too many against Illinois. Most importantly, Xavier has to make sure it eliminates live ball turnovers that lead to easy buckets on the other end.
Around this time of year, every college coach in the country thinks his team needs to improve on the defensive end, and Chris Mack is no exception after his team gave up 68 against Illinois last week. More than the amount of points or shooting percentage his team allowed, Mack is more concerned with breakdowns in the specific principles of his team's defensive system.
For the fans, there are some defensive elements to follow. First, ball screens shouldn't seem as problematic this year without Matt Stainbrook in the lineup. Second, there are a few key contributors that really needed to make a jump on the defensive end - Trevon Bluiett and JP Macura stand out in particular - and this match-up shouldn't push their limits physically, so it's a good chance for them to show off their hard work in the offseason. Finally, monitoring the impact of the team's overall incremental length and athleticism improvements from last year should be interesting.
5. 3-Point Shooting
With the amount of skilled shooters on this team, it would seem to make sense for the Musketeers to challenge teams like Creighton and Villanova for the most 3-point attempts in the Big East conference this season. However, it would stray from the suggested history of Chris Mack coached teams. His first team - which featured such snipers as Jordan Crawford, Tu Holloway, Dante Jackson, Brad Redford and Mark Lyons - attempted the most 3-pointers so far during his tenure at 18.9 per game. Even that group ranked just 181st in the country in terms of 3-point shot attempt percentage. At the same time, Mack has never had a group this skilled.
The Musketeers weren't shy about hoisting up jumpers from beyond the arc against Illinois, and they shot well. Will that trend continue?