The highest ranked team in the Atlantic 10 12 season kicks off action tonight at the Cintas ranked Xavier Musketeers entertain the Morgan State Bears.
Last year, Xavier had some troubles with non-conference opponents, winning just nine of 16 such matchups, but when it came to A-10 contests the Musketeers nearly ran the table with 15 wins in 16 opportunities. Head coach Chris Mack, named the Atlantic 10 Conference Coach of the Year for 2010-11, had his team on a nine-game win streak closing out the regular season, but then the squad was taken out by Dayton in the A-10 Conference Tournament (68-67) and then lost to Marquette in their first game of the NCAA Tournament (66-55), so there is a lot to prove heading into this year.
As for the Bears, representing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, they finished just three games over .500 a year ago at 17-14. Morgan State, brutal on the road at just 3-10, finished fourth in the league standings at 10-6 but after advancing to the MEAC title game the Bears lost to Hampton, 60-55, and that concluded the team's action for the season. Morgan State's head coach is Todd Bozeman who has a record of 102-65 as he enters his sixth season with the Bears.
With respect to the all-time series between these two schools on the hardwood, this is the third meeting. Xavier, which is a perfect 15-0 versus members of the MEAC, defeated the Bears by a score of 78-59 on December 30, 1995 and three years later the Musketeers captured a 100-67 victory as well.
The Bears are expecting a strong season this year as they bring back five players with significant starting experience. There were three double-digit scorers on the roster a season ago and all of them are back to make Morgan State stronger moving forward. At the top of that list is DeWayne Jackson who was responsible for 14.5 ppg, although as someone who felt comfortable letting fly with a team-high 180 three-point tries, he converted just 26.1 percent of those attempts. Kevin Thompson (13.1 ppg) has been a very strong performer in the paint for the group, clearing better than nine rebounds per game last season which means he is one of the top returning rebounders in the MEAC. Aric Brooks (10.2 ppg) is also capable of hitting the glass (4.4 rpg), but for whatever reason he shot just 36.1 percent from the floor a season ago which is hard to justify.
There's good reason for the Musketeers to be so highly regarded heading into the season and it begins with senior guard Tu Holloway. The 2010-11 Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year, Holloway led Xavier in scoring with 19.7 ppg and was tops in the league with 5.4 apg. Rarely do you find a double-threat like Holloway who can both score the ball and hook up with teammates so they can be part of the action as well. A candidate for All-America status, Holloway is also the top three-point threat for the Musketeers after knocking down a team-best 60 triples last season, a number that could increase given the departure of Dante Jackson. Mark Lyons (13.6 ppg) could pick up the slack out on the perimeter, while Kenny Frease (11.7 ppg) takes care of the action closer to the rim where he was responsible for 7.1 rpg a year ago. Junior forward Jeff Robinson (4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg) will have to assume more responsibility on offense and try to contribute more than just the six assists in more than 500 minutes of playing time he had a year ago.