Tire Pros Invitational creates “curiosity”

Kissimmee, Fla., November. 16, 2016 – At this time of year, college basketball teams are curious at how their first test of the season will help shape their campaign.

Coaches like to talk about developing their roster and at the Tire Pros Invitational, eight of them can’t wait to see how their teams will shape up with three games in four days.

While they’ll get their chance beginning Thursday in the HP Field House at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, there’s that little something that’s also on their minds – winning.

And that starts with the highest-ranked team in the tournament, Xavier. The Musketeers are ranked No. 10 in the county in the USA Today Coaches poll and No. 11 in the AP poll after opening the season with two home victories.

“I want to see us compete, obviously I want to see us stay healthy,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “I want to see continuing improvement whether we’re in Orlando or back in Cincinnati. These types of tournaments, you learn a lot about your team so we’re going to learn a lot here in four days.
“We’re excited, we want to compete, we’re here to win it and learn a lot about our team at the same time.”

The backcourt is off to a flying start for Xavier, with junior Trevon Bluiett averaging 19 points and 7 rebounds. Right behind him is sophomore Edmond Sumner, who opened the season with a career-high 24 points against Lehigh.

And last year’s Big East Sixth Man Award winner J.P. Macura is averaging 15.5 points in a starting role.

The Musketeers have had the same starting lineup in their first two games but they’re still waiting to see how the squad develops. Sophomore forward Kaiser Gates has yet to play as he recovers from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and the status of suspended guard Myles Davis remains a question.

“We’re a little bit shorthanded right now, missing a couple guys who later on in the season will be a part of things through injury and suspension,” said Mack, the 2015-16 Henry Iba Award winner as the national Coach of the Year. “Right now it’s working for us and that’s who we’re going to go with.”

Xavier opens play Thursday against Missouri.

One team that will rely on its depth is Oklahoma, which reached the NCAA Final Four last season behind star scorer Buddy Hield plus guard Isaiah Cousins and forward Ryan Spangler. With their departures, the Sooners (1-0) start the season ranked out of the top 25 for the first time since 2013.

That’s nothing new to Long Kruger, who has built a reputation on rebuilding programs. So even though it’s his sixth year at Oklahoma, he’s right at home rebuilding the Sooners with seven new players.

“It feels like that a little bit of that with all the turnover,” Kruger said after the Sooners practiced Wednesday. “The older guys last year did such a good job but they also left a good blueprint for their work ethic, their unselfishness, their commitment to winning and helping each other out. And this group’s picked up on that.”

The two returning starters, junior forward Khadeem Lattin and and senior guard Jordan Woodard, have set the pace for Oklahoma. Lattin had 19 points and 11 rebounds in the opener and Woodard had 16 points in 20 minutes in their 36-point win over Northwestern State.

The rest of the squad will certainly get their chances to find where they fit. Ten players played 18 or more minutes in the opener, with redshirt freshman forward Matt Freeman coming off the bench to score 15 points with three 3-pointers in 18 minutes.

“In the nonconference portion generally we do that, see who’s going to earn their minutes, earn their roles and they have a little bit more freedom in terms of shots but we’ll play a lot of people and we’d love to play a lot of people going into (Big 12) conference play,” Kruger said. “That’s always determined by the production the players get.

“It’ll be great for us. We need to play, we need to see as many reps as we can out of the young team.”

The Sooners open against Tulane and their new coach Mike Dunleavy Sr., the former NBA coach. In the other first-round matchups, Clemson faces Davidson and Northern Iowa takes on Arizona State.