Banged-up Xavier wary of battle-tested Northern Iowa

Following Tuesday night’s win over Marshall, Xavier head coach Chris Mack thanked his medical staff for giving him enough players to finish the game.

For a time on Tuesday, the ninth-ranked Musketeers were without two starters in J.P. Macura and Kaiser Gates plus reserve guard Naji Marshall, who was expected to fill their void.

In addition, forward Tyrique Jones was on the bench for a time with a knee issue.

Macura and Gates suffered concussions in Saturday’s win over East Tennessee State and returned to practice on Thursday. Marshall’s status was less certain for Friday’s game at Northern Iowa.

Mack said the Panthers likely won’t offer the Musketeers much sympathy after losing to them in consecutive games last season, 67-59 in the championship game of the Tire Pros Invitational in Orlando and 64-42 at Cintas Center six days later.

Xavier has avenged losses last year to Cincinnati, Baylor, and Colorado. Northern Iowa will be looking to turn the tables on Xavier.

“Everybody talks about Xavier’s revenge tour,” Mack said. “I’m sure Northern Iowa feels that same exact way. They’ve got guys that were on the floor for those games. They’re a really good team that is going to be excited to play us.”

Xavier (11-1) has won six straight games. Its only loss this season was to third-ranked Arizona State at the Las Vegas Invitational. But beating UNI in the McLeod Center might be a tall order for the Musketeers, even if they are at full strength.

The Panthers are 6-0 this season and 12-6 all-time versus ranked opponents at home. UNI knocked off No. 1-ranked North Carolina there in 2015.

“It would be a huge win for us,” Mack said. “They’re going to be one of the best teams in the Missouri Valley. They’re extremely well coached with a great style that works for them. We’re going to be amped to play.”

But who will be available to play for the Musketeers? That was still a big question mark for the Musketeers heading into the middle of the week.

Xavier will need Trevon Bluiett to step up on Friday night. With his team in tatters on Tuesday, Bluiett scored just 10 points and was 4 of 13 shooting. He averages 20.4 points.

But Bluiett was kept out of contact drills earlier in the week due to a minor knee issue.

Northern Iowa (8-3) is led by senior forward Bennett Koch, who earned Missouri Valley Conference after scoring 30 points in a 77-68 overtime win over UNLV. Koch was 10 of 19 on field goals and 10 of 13 from the free throw line.

The Panthers are battle-tested, having lost to top-ranked Villanova and fifth-ranked North Carolina but they beat SMU. UNI head coach Ben Jacobson wants to finish off the nonconference schedule with a flurry on Friday.

“You have to go out in November and December and you have to win games,” said Jacobson, according to the Cedar Falls Courier. “And to this point … this feels like the best November, December we’ve had. My hope is that we finish it out.”