Xavier gets depth test in opener with Niagara

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Xavier was picked third in the Big East preseason coaches' poll partly because it was considered one of the deepest teams in the league.

That strength will be tested from the opening tip.

The Musketeers will be without preseason All-Big East first-team big man Zach Freemantle, a 6-9 post player who averaged 16.1 points last season.

After an exhibition victory over Ferris State, coach Travis Steele touted his depth, noting "We have to put five guys in the book to start the game (but) we have more than five guys that are able to start on our team."

Even without Freemantle -- expected to be sidelined until at least December -- the Musketeers (13-8, 6-7 last year) have plenty of offense.

Guards Paul Scruggs (5.7 assists last season), another first-team all-Big East selection, and Nate Johnson are returning double-figure scorers. But the Musketeers will need more from Big Ten frontcourt transfers Jack Nunge (Iowa) and Jerome Hunter (Indiana).

Steele also is expecting breakthrough seasons from sophomores Dwon Odom and Colby Jones.

"We need Dwon and Colby both to take a big step forward into their sophomore years," Steele said. "Those guys have been really, really steady throughout the preseason."

Niagara coach Greg Paulus expected to return four starters, but senior guard Raheem Solomon (8.5 points) left the team to focus on his studies, per the Niagara Gazette.

Also, senior forward Greg Kuakumensah's status for the opener is uncertain after he sat out the exhibition victory over Cazenovia with what Paulus termed an "upper body injury."

Still, the Purple Eagles (9-11, 7-9 last season) have an all-MAAC first-team preseason selection in guard Marcus Hammond (12.7 points). Paulus is counting on senior Shandon Brown or junior-college transfer Noah Thomasson to run the point.

Justin Roberts (40.8% career from 3) will be asked to provide perimeter offense and South Alabama transfer Sam Iorio could be productive on the wing. But starting the season with games at Xavier and No. 17 Ohio State won't be easy.

"I think we're going to learn a lot about our group and have a chance to continue to grow against some of the best teams in the country," Paulus said.

--Field Level Media