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2016-17 Big East nonconference schedule analysis: Xavier Musketeers

Last year, the Musketeers were undefeated in non-conference play. Can they do it again?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Wisconsin vs Xavier Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Xavier Musketeers are coming off of their best season in program history—a school-best 26-4 regular season record, 13 straight weeks ranked in the top 10, and a No. 5 ranking in the AP Poll and No. 4 in the Coaches’ Poll, the highest rankings ever received for a Xavier team.

Unfortunately, the dream season came to a nightmarish halt. First, there was the loss in the Big East Tournament semifinals. Then, they were knocked out in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament by a buzzer beater.

Xavier is looking forward to getting a chance to fix and improve upon last year’s unfortunate end. It will start with the nonconference portion of its schedule. Last season, the Musketeers were perfect in nonconference play. Can they do it again?

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Lehigh (November 11)

The Mountain Hawks graduated four players during the offseason and usually that spells trouble for smaller basketball programs. Lehigh, a Patriot League school, was actually left virtually untouched from its player departures. The Mountain Hawks are bringing back their top four scorers from a year ago, each and every one of them averaged at least 10 points per game. Senior center Tim Kempton leads the charge after averaging nearly a double-double, with 17.7 points and 9.5 boards per game. Then there's all-around scorer Austin Price (13.0), slasher Kahron Ross (11.2), and sharpshooter Kyle Leufroy (10.6), who had the highest 3-point shooting percentage last season (44.1 percent).

With all of these key pieces returning, the Mountain Hawks should improve on their 17-15 record from last season and are certainly a favorite to return to the Patriot League title game.

Buffalo (November 14)

Bulls head coach Nate Oats is coming off of the best season a head coach has ever had in his first year at Buffalo--a 20-15 record, a MAC conference tournament championship, and a NCAA Tournament appearance. Buffalo returns almost all of its players who were instrumental in last year's success. One big absence is Lamonte Bearden, who transferred to Western Kentucky. Bearden was the Bulls' top scorer, averaging 13.7 points per game with 4.2 assists per game to go along with them. On the bright side, Buffalo retains its three other top scorers--Blake Hamilton (13.1 ppg), Willie Conner (11.8 ppg), and C.J. Massinburg (11.3 ppg).

While Bearden's departure is a big loss for Buffalo, it still has the pieces to be a solid basketball team.

2016 Puerto Rico Tip-Off (San Juan, P.R.)

Missouri (November 17)

Tigers head coach Kim Anderson is on the hot seat. Going back on the old adage and baseball rule "three strikes and you're out," Anderson is on his final strike. He is entering his third season, and the first two seasons were forgettable. Missouri compiled an abysmal 19-44 record since Anderson was placed at the helm, and it seems that this year would be his last chance to gain some traction and show improvement, or he's out.

6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kevin Puryear led the team with 11.5 points per game last year, in a season that culminated in All-SEC Freshman Team honors. He was the only Missouri player to eclipse the double digit scoring mark in an offense ranked 241st in the NCAA for points per game.

Clemson or Davidson (November 18)

Clemson: Jaron Blossomgame is one of the top seniors in college basketball right now. The 6-7 wing withdrew his name from the NBA Draft to play one more year for Clemson, but impressed throughout the process. His game has blossomed over the years and had a big junior season, when he averaged 18.7 points per game, shot 51.3 percent overall, and an impressive 44.6 percent from long range. He’s primed for a final senior campaign and hopes to leave a Buddy Hield-like impression. He’s an excellent scorer and rebounder, too. It won’t be a one-man show, the Tigers are bringing back their other two top scorers, Donte Grantham and Avry Holmes, who averaged in double figures last season. The Tigers are looking like a great team. Unfortunately, they have some even tougher teams in their conference, but don’t be surprised if they pull a few shockers.

Davidson: There’s no doubt Davidson loves its guards. The Wildcats have a special one in Jack Gibbs, who enjoyed a breakout season as a junior last season. He was amongst the top five scorers in the NCAA with 23.7 points per game. He dropped at least 30 points in 10 games last season. While his scoring gets most of the attention, his defending goes under the radar. He led the team in steals, with 1.8 per game. Gibbs is a solid perimeter defender, making him more of a complete player and not just a scoring machine. Expect him to receive a never-ending green light to shoot the ball and will be the difference maker for if the Wildcats return to the NCAA Tournament.

Northern Iowa OR Arizona State OR Tulane OR Oklahoma (November 20)

Northern Iowa: Ben Jacobson has made Northern Iowa a tough mid-major school to play in recent years. Despite fairly big roster turnovers of numerous starters and key players, he has been able to get Northern Iowa to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Last season may not have been as good as the 31-4 result from the 2014-15 season, but he has seamlessly gotten younger players to be familiar and perform in his team-oriented systems. Jeremy Morgan is their top returning starter. The 6-foot-5 guard had 11.3 points per game and a team-high 40.7 3-point shooting percentage. Last year, the Panthers finished 23-13 and had wins over marquee programs like North Carolina and Iowa State. Northern Iowa teams of late have typically been good at shooting and sharing the ball, so expect more of the same.

Arizona State: Sun Devil fans are hoping that year two of the Bobby Hurley project will go better than the first. After achieving success in his first two seasons as a head coach at Buffalo, Hurley had his first losing season of his young coaching career. Arizona State finished 15-17 last season, sputtering out of control once Pac-12 play began, when they lost 13 of 18 conference games. Three players were suspended and another quit. They lose three starters going into this season. So, it’s looking like another challenging year for Hurley. However, one bit of silver lining from last year is Tra Holder. Holder had a much-improved sophomore year, averaging a team-high 14.2 points per game, which is freshman season’s scoring output doubled. He’ll be back and primed for an even bigger junior season, but will he have a solid supporting class around him?

Tulane: Mike Dunleavy Sr. is coming out of coaching retirement to lead the Green Wave in what will be his first season coaching college basketball ever. He replaces Ed Conroy, who compiled a 92-103 record over his six years as the Green Wave head coach. Dunleavy has not coached since 2010, when he was the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Tulane is coming off of a 12-22 season. There are no signs that show this will be a smooth transitional year for Dunleavy’s coaching return and the Green Wave’s first year after Conroy, as they graduated their top scorer from last season and another one, Dylan Osetkowski, transferred to Texas for this season. Dunleavy can find solace in having Malik Morgan stick around. The senior guard scored 12.2 points per game last season in his first year suiting up for Tulane after transferring from LSU. After him, Tulane has a number of unproven and young players.

Oklahoma: The post-Buddy Hield era begins at Oklahoma. The Sooners will certainly miss the 2016 consensus player of the year, his numerous accolades and titles, and his scoring—definitely his scoring. Aside from Hield, the Sooners also graduated another solid shooter in Isaiah Cousins and forward Ryan Spangler, who almost averaged a double-double last season. The Sooners rode their now-graduates to the Final Four at the NCAA Tournament, and now, their rebuilding process begins. Oklahoma does return Jordan Woodard, who was second to Hield last year in scoring (13.0 points per game) and 3-point shooting percentage (45.5 percent). Forwards Kadeem Lattin and Dante Buford both had a part in the rotation last year and are primed for a bigger role this season. Aside from those three, the rest of the lineup is still somewhat unproven. Regardless, the Sooners should still be a tournament team, but no where near as great as they were last year.

Northern Iowa (November 26)

Depending on how the Puerto Rico Tip-Off unfolds, this may be a rematch. The Musketeers can possibly play the Panthers in back-to-back games.

North Dakota State (November 29)

Although typically known for its football team, the Bison have become a solid mid-major over the last four years—four 20-win seasons, pairs of Summit League regular season and tournament titles, and a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances. Head coach David Richman hopes to keep that going.

He can put his trust in juniors Paul Miller and A.J. Jacobson, who bursted onto the scene as sophomores last season. They led the team in scoring last year, and the tandem will most likely do it again. Kory Brown has graduated, but sophomore Khy Kabellis should pick up where Brown left off. The added experience will make these three a formidable trio moving forward.

at Baylor (December 3 - Waco, Texas)

The Bears will have to recover from losing to Yale in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament and the departures of forwards Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers. Baylor had a deep nine-man rotation last season and fortunately for the Bears, they retain six of those players for the upcoming season.

Al Freeman and Johnathan Motley are the top returning scorers, averaging slightly above 11 points per season last year. With a clearance at the front court positions, Ishmail Wainwright is expected to take on a bigger load and get more touches. Terry Maston, King McClure, and Jake Lindsey each averaged around 13 minutes per game last season, expect that number to rise this year—along with their contributions.

at Colorado (December 7 - Boulder, Colo.)

Tad Boyle has done a great job of being Colorado’s head coach since taking over in 2010. The Buffaloes (yes, they don’t go by ‘the Buffalo’ or ‘Buffalos’) have reached the NCAA Tournament in four out of the last five years and those appearances have corresponded with 20-win seasons.

Leading the charge will be George King and Josh Fortune. King looked fantastic in his first season as a starter. He averaged 13.6 points per game and knocked down 45.6 percent of his shots from long range. He’s far from one-dimensional, as he can also score inside and sink his shots from mid-range. Fortune had a solid first season at Colorado. The former Providence Friar averaged 10.3 points per game and 4.0 rebounds per game.

Utah (December 10)

The Utes have a herculean task: to replace 7-foot All-American Jakob Poeltl, who now plays for the Toronto Raptors, and the 10 other basketball players that departed during the offseason. Aside from Poeltl, Utah graduated four players and saw six transfer--Brekkott Chapman (Weber State), Isaiah Wright (San Diego), Chris Reyes (Pepperdine), Kenneth Ogbe (Utah Valley), Makol Mawien (New Mexico JC), and Austin Montgomery (Dixie State).

So who’s left from this depleted roster? Lorenzo Bonam and Kyle Kuzma are two returning starters that averaged just over 10 points per game last season. After them, the next returning player, who got playing time last season, is Gabe Bealer. Bealer appeared in just 16 games and averaged only 6.6 minutes per game. There will surely be a lot of new faces with bigger roles this year.

Wake Forest (December 17)

Xavier and Wake Forest meet for the second part of their home-and-home series to honor their former head coach Skip Prosser, who coached at both schools before passing away in 2007. Xavier won the first game at Wake Forest, erasing an 18-point deficit to win the game 78-70. This time, the Musketeers will host the Demon Deacons.

The Demon Deacons won’t have last season’s leading scorer Devin Thomas around, but they do have sophomore Bryant Crawford. Crawford had an excellent freshman season, in which he was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team after averaging 13.8 points per game and 4.4 assists per game. Wake Forest also has a pair of forwards who will probably receive bigger roles, Cornelius Hudson and Konstantinos Mitoglou. They are both interior scoring threats and with some players graduated, should get the ball more.

Eastern Washington (December 20)

After having the program’s best season ever two years ago, Eastern Washington was hit hard with player departures last season. Seven players left before the 2015-16 season and it hurt the Eagles, who were able to salvage an 18-16 record last year.

The Eagles will have to try and replace the production of Austin McBroom, who averaged 21.0 points per game as a graduate transfer. Felix Von Hofe may be the solution to that. He was able to step into a bigger role as a starter, becoming a perimeter threat. He averaged 13.0 points per game and shot 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. Forward Bogdan Bliznyuk went through a similar transformation last season, which was also his first year as a starter. He was just behind Von Hofe with 12.4 points per game. It’s their team now.

at Cincinnati (January 26, Fifth Third Arena)

It’s very rare that you find a college basketball rivalry like the Crosstown Shootout between Xavier and Cincinnati. The rivaling schools are located just three miles away from each other, making it one of the closest rivalries in basketball. The Musketeers have won the last three meetings, although the last two games have been close.

Gary Clark will lead the front court. Clark had 10.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game, and was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He will get some help inside from 6-9, 240 pound center Kyle Washington, who will be eligible to play after transferring in from N.C. State. At the perimeter, point guard Troy Coupain provides a scoring threat. Last season, he had a team-high 13.0 points per game. The Bearcats are also looking forward to an improved Kevin Johnson. He was mainly used as a defensive specialist, but head coach Mick Cronin has said his scoring and shooting abilities have gotten better.

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Outlook

Compared to last year, this is a slightly tougher nonconference schedule. Just by a little bit. There are a number of depleted squads, which takes away from the allure of it, but there are also teams that just have a penchant for being in the NCAA Tournament. There are also teams that can also make for a closer-than-expected game. Also, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off doesn’t look like as much of a cake walk as the Advocare Invitational was for Xavier last year. With that said, Trevon Bluiett and Edmund Sumner are primed for a big year. The losses of Jalen Reynolds (pre-emptive departure for the NBA Draft) and Myles Davis (suspended indefinitely) are going hurt, as will the graduations of Remy Abell and James Farr. Chris Mack will have to replace a number of key rotation players that have played a lot of minutes in each of the last few seasons. The new faces will need some time to acclimate to playing in the system. With that said, I don’t see Xavier going undefeated, but I see an early loss that would be the only one in nonconference play.

It will probably come in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and will be the catalyst to get the Musketeers back on track to win out the rest of the nonconference schedules, especially with those home games they’ll play at the Cintas Center in the second half of nonconference play.