This apparently isn't going to be the season for the rest of the Atlantic 10 Conference to catch up with Xavier.
The Musketeers looked vulnerable after losing four of their top six players from a team that set a school record for wins. Xavier was 30-7 last season, won its second straight conference regular-season championship and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament before losing to UCLA.
Yet, Xavier is looking like the class of the Atlantic 10 again in 2008-09 after winning the O'Reilly Auto Parts Puerto Rico Tip-Off last weekend in San Juan by beating three BCS programs. The Musketeers slipped past Missouri 75-71, edged Virginia Tech 63-62 and downed Memphis 63-58 in the championship game.
Xavier is now 5-0 and No. 37 in the Pomeroy Ratings going into Saturday's game against Miami of Ohio.
"Winning 30 games last season was great but it's not like we've decided to set our goals lower this season because we lost some guys," Xavier junior forward Derek Brown said. "Our team's expectation this year is to win 31 games. We're setting the bar even higher. We always have high expectations here. We always feel like we're going to do well.
"We know there is going to be a learning curve because we're a younger team than we were last season. Still, we have talent here and we know we're capable of winning a lot of games if we work hard and play up to the standard we've set in this program."
The learning curve may not as steep as it appeared when the season began. The key to Xavier's success last season was balance, as six players averaged at least 9.7 points. The Musketeers are mirroring that this season as they have six players scoring at least 7.8 points a game.
Brown is leading the way with a 10.6 average and is followed by senior forward B.J. Raymond (10.2), senior guard C.J. Anderson (10.0), sophomore forward Jamel McLean (8.8), freshman guard Terrell Holloway (7.8) and sophomore guard Dante Jackson (7.8). However, defense has been Xavier's calling card so far as it is 28th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with an 83.2 mark and 102th in adjusted offensive efficiency at 105.0.
The biggest question around Xavier coming into this season was point guard following the graduation of Drew Lavender. However, Holloway has stepped in and done a good job of leading Xavier on both ends of the court.
"Having Terrell step up early in the season has been a big key for us," Xavier coach Sean Miller said. "He's a confident player and he came here believing he could step right in and play."
However, Xavier will be without Holloway for at least two weeks as he sits out with a stress fracture in his left foot. The good news is that Holloway should be ready to play again by the time Xavier opens Atlantic 10 play on Jan. 8 against Saint Louis.
"We felt we could count on the leadership of Derek, B.J. and C.J. early in the season. Having Terrell play as well as he did early on had been a big boost," Miller said. "It's a tough loss but we'll move on and hopefully he'll be back soon and continue to show the same improvement he has since the first day of practice."
Miller was particularly impressed by how well Holloway performed in Puerto Rico after Xavier opened the season with two easy victories over IUPU-Fort Wayne and Toledo.
"Coming [to Puerto Rico] with a young backcourt wasn't a great feeling but winning a championship is going to give us a lot of confidence," Miller said. "Our team has a lot of toughness and we showed that by winning three difficult games. We have some veterans who have been in big games before and now we have some young guys who are battle-tested."
Xavier will have a few more tests before entering Atlantic 10 competition, including a home game against Auburn, a visit across town to Cincinnati, a matchup with Duke in East Rutherford and a trip to Virginia. However, there is little doubt the Musketeers are ready to face anyone after the trip to Puerto Rico.
"We're ready to accept any challenge put in front of us," Brown said.
Tennessee Volunteers to Travel
Few top 25 programs will go on the road to play a mid-major or low-major. Even fewer will do so against a school in its own state.
However, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl did not have a problem with taking his Volunteers to Murfreesboro last Friday to visit Middle Tennessee State. Tennessee came away with a 76-66 win in a game that was seemingly a no-win proposition for the Volunteers as they were expected to win and would have risked their high ranking in the polls and the RPI with a loss.
Tennessee also played at Chattanooga last season and escaped with a 76-70 win over the Mocs. Pearl plans to play more in-state road games beside the annual visit to Nashville to face Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference and the every-other-year visit to Memphis for a non-conference affair.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm a self-serving guy. I did this to make us better, help us learn how to win on the road," Pearl said. "We may lose one of these games in Chattanooga or Nashville or Johnson City but it's the right thing to do. It's good for basketball. It's good for the state of Tennessee. Coming to Murfreesboro was great. It gave our fans in this part of the state a chance to see us play without having to travel all the way to Knoxville and it was a great atmosphere."
Why Not Knight?
Last week's Around The Rim highlighted Arizona's program and the challenges facing interim coach Randy Pennell in the wake of Lute Olson abruptly retiring six days into the preseason.
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale says he wishes Pennell nothing but the best but believes Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood should have gotten more creative in finding an interim coach. Vitale feels Bob Knight, college basketball's all-time winningest coach, would have been the perfect solution. Knight is working for ESPN this season after stepping down at Texas Tech last February.
"I was real shocked that Arizona did not go after Bob Knight," Vitale said in a conference call with the media to discuss his 30th year with ESPN. "I'm serious when I say that. He would have been the ideal guy to step in and I firmly believe he would have accepted that role to step in, take the program and get it moving again until they were going to hire in the future.
"It's a tough situation replacing a guy like Lute and what he had done for that program. That's why I thought with Knight being available that UA should have gone after him. He would have been the right guy."
News and Notes
- St. John's senior forward Anthony Mason Jr. is out for the season after having surgery to repair a torn tendon in his foot and will receive a medical redshirt. Mason was averaging 14.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 blocked shots and 34.3 minutes in three games this season.
- Southern California reserve sophomore Kasey Cunningham will miss the season after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee. He was averaging 2.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 10.3 minutes in four games this season.
- Southern Illinois freshman center Nick Evans will miss at least a month with a broken left wrist. Evans is averaging 6.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 16.3 minutes in three games this season.
- CBS will begin showing the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament championship game next season at 1 p.m. on Selection Sunday.
Games to Watch
Five games to watch in the next week with rankings according to the Pomeroy Ratings and all times Eastern:
No. 16 Duke at No. 3 Purdue, Tuesday Dec. 2, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 8 West Virginia at No. 15 Mississippi, Wednesday Dec. 3, 9 p.m., ESPN Full Court
No. 12 Ohio at No. 30 George Mason, Saturday, Nov. 29, 4 p.m.
No. 36 Michigan at No. 13 Maryland, Wednesday Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU
No. 8 West Virginia vs. No. 56 Iowa at Las Vegas, Friday, Nov. 28., 9 p.m., ESPN Full Court
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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