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Big men tag team ready for Florida State challenge

Xavier’s big men are ready for FSU.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Xavier vs Texas Southern Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrique Jones wants to introduce you to Xavier’s front line.

“We have Kerem, the smooth skill guy, Sean the back-to-the-basket specialist, and me, the bruiser,” he said.

They barely play on the floor with one another, but as the only post players on the roster, Kerem Kanter, Sean O’Mara and Jones virtually share the same office space. During practice, when Xavier splits its bigs from its guards for position specific drills, nine players run to one side of the floor to throw up three-point shots. These three stay put and wait for further instruction.

All summer long, they battled for the starting spot as assistant coach Mike Pegues hit them with crash pads and play calls. It was his responsibility to mold all of them into better players, and he told them all they had to become angrier rebounders. None of them could defend well enough to make the coaches smile.

Kanter, who averaged 11.3 points last season at Green Bay before transferring to Xavier, was the most challenging piece to put into place. Integrating a 6-foot-10 three-point shooter into one of the best offenses in the country hasn’t been as easy as it’s looked.

“We don’t try to conform K too much (because) K is a unique, rare breed,” Pegues said. “We try to help him understand what our system is and try to infuse what he does into what we do offensively.”

This rare breed of perimeter scoring and ambidextrous post moves barely cracked the rotation in his first 8 games, playing fewer than 15 minutes every time. Even though at first he took just four shots a game, Kanter said he realized the role he wanted was something he had to grow into.

“I think it gave me a little more comfort coming off the bench. You kind of want to do a little bit more to stay on the court more,” he said.

Kanter started to make a name for himself with a 17-point game in December. It came against Cincinnati, so his effort didn’t go unnoticed. Ten games later, following a 24 point drubbing at the hands of Villanova, Xavier’s offense needed a shot in the arm. It was time for the do-it-all center from Turkey to start.

Now an entrenched starter, Kanter helps make Xavier’s offense maintain its high ranking in KenPom efficiency. He averaged 10.9 points per game in conference play and shot 34 percent from beyond the arc this season, and Pegues said Kanter’s ability that aligns well with the modern game. As teams look to spread the floor and move the ball, Kanter’s strengths can impact tempo in a way Jones and O’Mara couldn’t.

All season, he’s hit threes and found open teammates. But none of his performances were as captivating as his 24 point game in the first round against Texas Southern.

He attacked the defense off the dribble multiple times, hit an array of shots from the midrange and finished one of the fanciest baskets of the season– a layup he made after faking a behind-the-back pass to Jones. Not to many bigs could pull that off. Not on Xavier. Not on Florida State. Not in the country.

Heading into the next round, Kanter can stretch Florida State’s elastic front line out of its comfort zone. The Seminoles start 7-foot-4 center Chris Koumadje playing next to three athletes between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8. When Koumadje sits, 7 footer Ike Obiagu comes into the game.

Trevon Bluiett said Kanter and freshman Naji Marshall, Xavier’s two biggest additions to last season’s team that beat Florida State in the Round of 32, give them a different way to matchup this time.

“Having Naji and Kerem in brings a lot of versatility to our group,” he said. “You have Kerem who can push the ball from rebounding. He’s a 5 and (you can) bring him out on perimeter.”

That’s exactly where the Seminoles live and die. Despite their impressive size at center, FSU’s forwards have the biggest impact on their offense. Phil Cofer leads them with 13 points per game and can bully you at the rim and hit a step back three on back-to-back possessions. His running mate and FSU’s second leading scorer, Terance Mann, isn’t expected to play Sunday. Lacking most of his major pieces on last year’s team, coach Leonard Hamilton said he isn’t looking back at the 25-point loss he suffered in Orlando.

“Tomorrow’s game is different because we’re playing against an extremely experienced team,” he said. “As team that’s very well connected together, [we’re] going to have to be a little sounder defensively. We’re going to have to execute a lot better offensively because this team has earned the right to be a No. 1 seed.”

A couple of days ago, Xavier was expected to be the first No. 1 seed to be knocked out of the tournament, leading to Bluiett mocking these detractors on Twitter after UMBC shocked Virginia. He tweeted, “Xavier will be the first 1 Seed to drop out…” after millions of people clicked on Missouri or Florida State to beat Xavier in the second round on their ESPN.com brackets.

After failing to advance in the NCAA Tournament at Green Bay, Kanter transferred to Xavier to play on a team with a chance to win it all. “I haven’t had an experience like this before,” he said. Because like Xavier’s march to a No. 1 seed, none of this has been as easy as it’s looked.