By Ben Dickison, Sports Page Editor
At midnight, Xavier will set out to make Sin City into “Two-Win City” as they tip-off the first of two games in Las Vegas. Tonight, on men’s basketball Head Coach Sean Miller’s 55th birthday, the Musketeers take on their only scheduled PAC-12 opponent this season, the Washington Huskies, as part of the Continental Tire Main Event.
The Huskies have defeated both Bellarmine and Northern Kentucky this season, each just a short trek down I-71. The Kentucky pipeline is accentuated by Sahvir Wheeler, who starts at point guard and is a world-class facilitator, averaging six assists per game. He has suited up for both Kentucky and Georgia in his career, and it is no seldom occurrence for Wheeler to be featured in pick-and-roll settings with senior forward Keion Brooks, who played two seasons in Rupp Arena for Kentucky. Brooks leads the purple & gold in scoring, averaging 18.1 points per game. The Huskies have also heavily utilized the services of Rutgers grad transfer Paul Mulcahy, a 6’7” forward who visited Xavier last summer while discerning his next college basketball home.
Xavier will seek to control the tempo against the Huskies, who seek to force opponents to take contested jump shots against their 2-3 zone defense, brought to Seattle by head coach Mike Hopkins, who spent his playing days at Syracuse during zone aficionado Jim Boeheim’s tenure.
To this point, the X-men have struggled to connect from beyond the arc, shooting just over 29% from deep as a team. Trey Green and Gytis Nemeiška both connected twice from deep against Purdue on Monday — a game in which Xavier impressed on a national scale despite their loss.
“Xavier is way further along than expected,” FOX Sports College Basketball personality Aaron Torres said. Ten newcomers came with a swath of preseason unknowns, especially with the likely season-ending ailments of star forwards Jerome Hunter and Zach Freemantle. Fret not: North Texas transfer Abou Ousmane has proven to be a force to be reckoned with, averaging 8.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per contest. After Ousmane was disqualified after his fifth foul came early in the second half against Purdue, Slovenian big man Saša Ciani had the quite literally tall task of guarding reigning National Player of the Year Zach Edey, who stands 7’4”. The rock solid play of Ciani and Ousmane coupled with the debut of Serbian five man Lazar Djokovic — who missed the opening trio of games against Robert Morris, Jacksonville and Purdue with a hand fracture — could overwhelm the field at the Main Event. San Diego State and Saint Mary’s (Calif.) both tend to play lineups more modest in stature in order to enhance perimeter shooting and defensive rotations.
After the 73-61 loss at Purdue, Miller said, “Today Dayvion (McKnight) was the point guard we want him to be.”
If McKnight can replicate his capacity to collapse the defense on straight line drives this weekend as he did against Purdue, the big men should have plenty of easy buckets at their disposal, and Des Claude and Quincy Olivari will have a plethora of open looks from range.
The Aztecs and Gaels play the “early” game this evening, tipping off at 9:30 p.m. EST.
The winner of that West Coast showdown will take on the winner of the latest game in Xavier hoops history. The losing parties in both games will also play a consolation game prior to Sunday’s championship at T-Mobile Arena, home of the Vegas Golden Knights.