Russell: Nine questions -- and answers -- for local teams this college basketball season

CINCINNATI -- College basketball is back, and it’s looking good for area Division I men’s teams.

All four programs -- Cincinnati, Miami, Northern Kentucky University and Xavier -- have started practicing in the last week, and exhibition games are just around the corner. 

Questions galore accompany the new season. Will each team’s veterans live up to expectations? Will the newcomers make significant impacts? Come March, will there be two Elite Eight teams in this city?

Xavier and UC are expected to be preseason Top 25 teams when the major polls are released. NKU is coming off a program-first DI NCAA tournament berth, and Miami has a new coach in Jack Owens. 

Here are nine questions and answers about the hoops campaigns ahead of the regular season.

Does Xavier have what it takes to make a second straight trip to the Elite Eight?

Absolutely, and here’s why. The team played most of its Big East slate and beyond without the injured NBA-bound Edmond Sumner (knee) and thus learned to function without him. That meant a much bigger role for then-freshman point guard Quentin Goodin, who thrived despite his own injury (foot).

Season scoring leaders Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura are back as seniors and they’re in the best shape of the careers. Fellow senior Sean O’Mara played inspired ball during the NCAA tournament while others -- Tyrique Jones, Kaiser Gates -- showed glimpses of their potential.

The addition of a nationally ranked recruiting class featuring Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall and Elias Harden eases the losses of transfers Malcolm Bernard and RaShid Gaston, both of whom have gone on to play professionally. XU has a more talent from top to bottom this season, the ability to contend for a conference title and the potential for a deep run in March.

Who takes over as UC’s leader with Troy Caupain gone?

The Bearcats’ top three scorers are back in Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington and Gary Clark, but Caupain was a vaunted veteran with the poise to finish when it mattered.

Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome, right, is expected to give UC a scoring and playmaking boost. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

As far as the point guard position goes, it’s no secret that Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome is the heir apparent. Broome averaged a nation-eighth 23.1 points two years ago before transferring to UC and sitting out per NCAA rules. Broome, the Northeast Conference Player of the Year in 2015-16, also averaged 4.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.7 steals in 37.5 minutes. Whether he’ll be the all-around player and tireless workhorse that Caupain was (10.5 points per game, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 points, 32.3 minutes) in a better league remains to be seen.

But coach Mick Cronin said a guard needs fill the void left by Caupain in terms of making plays late in games and that player could be Broome. He may elude defenders with his lightning-quick speed or find Evans or Jarron Cumberland on a set play for a win. Time will tell.

Who holds the early advantage in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout?

Xavier, but only slightly.

The game is back on the Musketeers’ home court at Cintas Center, and the Bearcats have not won there since 2001-02.

UC celebrated an 86-78 victory over the Musketeers last year at Fifth Third Arena, and that was despite Trevon Bluiett’s career-high 40 points including an eye-popping nine 3-pointers. Besides Bluiett and J.P. Macura (13 points), Xavier lacked the offensive firepower to temper the Bearcats’ thunder. Evans, Caupain, Clark and Washington scored in double figures to end a victory drought in the series. UC dazzled with 30 second-chance points and 16 points off turnovers throughout.

This year’s Shootout is at noon Dec. 2. It could be one of the best regular-season games in college basketball this year, let alone between Top 25 teams. Seniors will be the difference.

What does NKU do for an encore?

To recap the Norse’s last campaign: Head coach John Brannen led the team out of rebuilding mode and into the Horizon League championship, where it defeated Milwaukee for an NCAA tournament automatic bid. It was among the best stories of the tournament, as NKU was in its first year of eligibility for the Division I postseason after reclassifying from Division II.

The buck stopped against second-seeded Kentucky in the NCAA tourney -- UK won 79-70 -- but NKU acquitted itself nicely and drew nationwide attention.

This year the Norse return 77 percent of their offense and 76 percent of their minutes played, and their top three scorers -- Horizon League Tournament MVP Lavone Holland II, All-Tournament team member Drew McDonald and Carson Williams -- are back.

Although there’s a larger target on the program now, the pieces are in place for another successful season. 

Can Miami be relevant again with a new coach?

Owens, former Purdue associate head coach, was named the RedHawks’ new head coach in March, just weeks after Miami finished its 11-21 campaign and fifth-year coach John Cooper was fired.

New head coach Jack Owens will try to turn around the Miami RedHawks. (Greg Lynch/Dayton Daily News)

Cooper is now an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, which is the destination of reigning Mid-American Conference freshman of the year Michael Weathers. The RedHawks’ scoring leader (16.7 ppg) transferred after last season, as did his twin brother Marcus (Duquesne) -- Miami’s third leading scorer (9.7 ppg).

Six-foot-nine senior Logan McLane returns as Miami’s leader in scoring (11.8 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg). Owens filled the roster with new recruits soon after his arrival and said the RedHawks will give themselves chances this season by outworking the competition.

There’s no doubt that a rebuild will take time. It has been 18 years since the RedHawks last made the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, a decade since the program reached the Big Dance at all, and eight years since it had a winning season. 

Who has the best chance to be an All-American in this area?

Bluiett.

The Xavier senior has already made multiple preseason All-American lists and enters this campaign as a highly decorated player.

The two-time First Team All-Big East selection was second in the league in scoring last season (18.5 ppg) despite a recurring ankle injury that kept him from playing less than his best from February onward. Even with the ailment, he averaged 21.3 points in the NCAA tournament and earned a place on the five-man All-West Regional Team.

\ Xavier's Trevon Bluiett withdrew his name from NBA draft consideration to return to the Musketeers. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Bluiett, a versatile 6-foot-6 guard who can inflict damage from the perimeter and as a stretch-four, is the player the Musketeers want with the ball in his hands when a game is on the line. He has a chance to become the fifth 2,000-point scorer in program annals and, if he matches last year’s pace, he could finish as high as second on Xavier’s all-time scoring list.

Bluiett twice dipped his toes in NBA draft waters and twice returned to school.

Who’s the most important player to his team this year? 

Evans.

The junior is an intrinsic part of the Bearcats’ efforts, whether it’s his deadeye 3-point shooting, timely assists or clutch free throws. He stuffed stat sheets last season with 13.5 points, 4.2 boards, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals in nearly 32 minutes a game.

Jacob Evans will be key to UC's hopes this season. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

But his impact was greater than that; his consecutive free throws with 20 seconds left lifted UC to an overtime victory last season at Iowa State, and he played every minute of the overtime victory over Marshall.

The 6-foot-6 swingman is a priority on scouting reports, but he often excels in spite of them. A strong supporting cast helps. Clark and Washington are highly important as seniors, playmakers and locker room leaders, but the Bearcats have even greater upside with Evans’ skills. He’s the tone-setter, the game-changer and a big reason UC forged a 30-6 record a year ago.

Who are the best newcomers?

When it comes to transfers, point guard Broome is a gem for the Bearcats and grad transfer Kerem Kanter could make an impact with the Musketeers.

Kanter, brother of NBA player Enes Kanter, started his career at Green Bay and provides a veteran presence in the front court with Sean O’Mara. The 6-foot-10 forward’s rebounding skills and soft touch at the rim are part of a repertoire that includes 3-point shooting.

In terms of freshmen, 6-foot-7 forward Naji Marshall is an apt defender and gifted shooter who could play meaningful minutes for Xavier. Six-foot-5 guard Keith Williams is a scorer who can provide UC with even more firepower this season.

Who could have a breakout season?

Xavier sophomore Tyrique Jones has the ability to be an absolute force on the interior. The 6-foot-9 forward played behind veterans last season and was often sidelined by fouls, but he thrived in the postseason and will have a greater role this year.

NKU's Carson Williams could be poised for a breakout season. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

UC’s Jarron Cumberland is a defending co-Sixth Man of the Year in the American Athletic Conference and likely the team’s starting shooting guard this season. He led the Bearcats in scoring in six games as a rookie and seems destined for an even bigger role ahead.

NKU’s Carson Williams isn’t exactly a secret, but the 6-5 forward scored 21 points against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament and doesn’t back down from challenges.

Miami senior forward Rod Mills Jr. has a chance to make a major impact on the team after averaging 7.1 points and 3.1 rebounds last year. The former St. Xavier High School product started 23 games last year and is among few veterans on a young team.

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