Depleted Musketeers face challenging season

CINCINNATI (AP) - Xavier isn't quite reduced to being the three Musketeers. Pretty close, though.

These days, there's a lot less "all" in their "all for one."

The co-champions of the Atlantic 10 got depleted even before they began their daunting nonconference schedule, reduced by injuries to only nine healthy scholarship players and two returning starters. It's difficult to even practice with numbers like that.

And it's not going to get better anytime soon, setting up one of Xavier's most challenging seasons in years.

"Adversity's a fact of life," said coach Chris Mack, who overcame two knee injuries as a player. "I had to deal with it personally as a player. It is what it is. I feel bad for all the kids that are out, but our team will go on with business as usual."

For Xavier, business as usual means winning at least a share of the conference title and playing deep into the NCAA tournament. That figured to be a major challenge after Jordan Crawford - who led the A10 in scoring at 20.5 points per game - left early for the NBA.

The setbacks were only starting.

Brad Redford, one of the nation's top 3-point shooters, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a practice drill last month. He needed reconstructive surgery and will miss the season.

A few days later, the NCAA ruled that freshman forward Justin Martin was a partial qualifier, unable to play in games this season.

Then, in the opening exhibition, an opponent's arm caught senior forward Jamel McLean just below the eye, breaking the bone. He'll be sideline for up to six weeks, costing Xavier its top returning rebounder and front-line scorer.

Pretty grim.

"We're not going to sit up here and make excuses for losing guys," senior guard Dante Jackson said. "We have to come out and play well. Whether they're freshmen or seniors, there's no excuse for not blocking out or diving on the floor for loose balls.

"That's where our team is right now. We have to do those little things to, I guess, make up the difference for Jamel and make up the difference for Brad."

The backcourt and the front-line backups will have to carry them through a tough nonconference schedule. Xavier grew into one of the nation's top basketball programs - Michigan State is the only other team to reach the NCAA's round of 16 each of the last three years - by taking on anyone who would play the small private school.

The early schedule includes a tournament in the Virgin Islands, along with Iowa, Alabama, Seton Hall, Clemson and Old Dominion; Butler; Wake Forest; Gonzaga; Florida and crosstown rival Cincinnati.

"When everyone's recruited here, we're told we're going to play in big games," Jackson said. "We're looking forward to it. At the same time, we have to get better every day or those big games won't be so big."

Junior point guard Terrell "Tu" Holloway will have to carry the offense at the outset. Holloway had some big games in the NCAA tournament last season, scoring 26 points in a double-overtime loss to Kansas State. He averaged 12.1 points and 3.9 assists, which ranked sixth in the league.

It's going to be rough in the early going.

"The main thing we want to see out of this team is great defense," Holloway said. "Guys are still learning plays and learning positions. You can always give great effort on defense and try to contain teams. The offense is going to be shaky, even the first couple of games of the year."

Sophomore guard Mark Lyons started five games and averaged 7.8 points. Jackson averaged 6.5 points, struggling with his shot at times.

The depleted front line is the biggest concern. McLean averaged 8.5 points and 7.5 rebounds last season, teaming with Jason Love to form a dependable presence under the basket. Love graduated and McLean got hurt, leaving 7-foot junior Kenny Frease to move into a much bigger role. He started eight games last season, and averaged 5.1 points and 4.3 rebounds for the season. Senior forward Andrew Taylor has never started before this season.

The few experienced players are going to have to carry the team while a group of newcomers, including three freshmen, figure things out.

"They know the system," said Mack, entering his second season. "They understand what they need to do in the system. And now it's their job, along with our staff's job, to make sure the younger guys catch on and assimilate themselves as quick as possible."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)