After three relatively easy games at the beginning of the schedule, Xavier's opening home stand wraps up tonight with the Georgia Bulldogs coming to Cintas. UGa was a marquee road win for the Muskies in the middle of the conference season last year, but this Georgia squad is a different animal altogether. Gone are two NBA-caliber players (you know, if there were an NBA right now), and what remains is a mostly balanced team that focuses on the defensive end of the floor to make plays.
Georgia rolled through the warm-up section of their schedule with three unnecessarily tight wins at home against less-than-convincing opposition. The honeymoon ground to a halt with a 24-point point demolition at the hands of California, but the Bulldogs bounced back with a nice win over Notre Dame on Tuesday. Despite their losses from last year, Georgia comes in with an RPI ranking of 26 and an SOS of 34.
The Bulldogs' offense is a pretty basic three out, two in set with the big men posting up or running to the top of the key to pick for the ball handler or run high-low. Georgia's most dangerous player is highly-touted freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. After some question over the summer regarding his eligibility, he has been cleared to play and is posting a 13.2/5.4/0.6(!) line on .404/.324/.500 shooting. He's a 6'4" guard and something of a streak shooter; Xavier would do well to keep him from heating up. Also, three assists in five games and a 9-18 performance from the line hint that he still has a little growing to do.
Point guard Gerald Robinson is the Dogs only other double-digit scorer. His 11.4/3.0/4.4 is tempered by a .391/.273/.857 shooting line and 3.6 turnovers per game. That's a lot of wasted possessions from the senior. Six-eight freshman Nemanja Djurisic and 6'9" sophomore Donte Williams handle the bulk of the interior scoring; Djurisic gets his 9 and 3 on a .566/.300/.667 shooting line, and Williams posts 7.8 and a team-leading 6.4. John Florveus is seven feet tall but doesn't even get 15 minutes a game and doesn't do much with them.
Defensively, Georgia plays a tough man-to-man that will be Xavier's most difficult test to this point. Miami (OH) was able to gum the Muskies' offensive works, and the Bulldogs have the length and athletic ability to do even more damage. Their defense doesn't try to generate turnovers, instead focusing on forcing opponents into contested shots. It's working pretty well so far; they're 33rd in defensive efficiency and and 55th in opponents' EFG%. Their showing on the defensive glass is about average.
-Can Xavier be effective in the half-court against a tight man? XU seems to have all the tools to be an impressive offensive team in any facet, but they've sputtered against defenses that don't give them time to breathe in the half-court. For this team to make a meaningful run in March, they have to be able to play patiently as well as explosively. Georgia plays at about a 65 possession per game tempo, which is one of the slowest in the nation.
-Will Big Kenny/anyone step up as a go-to interior scorer? Jason Love, while not a world-beater by any means, was a player who could take pressure off of the guards by virtue of his ability to be a reliable scoring option inside. Since he departed, Xavier has lacking a player who can be counted on with reasonable certainty to make hay in the paint. Against a team whose two players over 6'9" don't combine for 20 minutes a game, a player who could be a bully on the post has a chance to shine tonight.
-How deep does Coach Mack want the rotation? Xavier has unprecedented depth this year, at least where the Chris Mack era is concerned. With the season segueing from guarantee games to contests against teams with legitimate tournament aspirations, Coach Mack is getting to the point at which he'll demonstrate which players he think can help the Muskies win no matter who the opponent is. Some of those players are obvious; others are really going to have to show up in practice.
-Force the tempo. Anyone who watched the Miami game knows that Xavier is in danger of stagnation in the half-court against a capable and determined man defense. On the run, however, X has the athletes at all five positions who can make things happen in the open court. The best way to keep Georgia from packing the defense is to make them chase the game.
-Play intense defense. Hand in hand with high-tempo offense is playing aggressive defense. Stops turn into offensive opportunities more quickly, and opponents who have to work to get close to the rim tend to get more discouraged as the game goes on. If the Muskies can set the tone on the defensive end, it will make like a lot easier on offense.
-Avoid the hangover. It's been a week since X played, and they've had that time to work on their issues but also to reflect on their success. It can be hard to get back up to speed after time off like that, so the team needs to get off to a good start and continue to do the things that made it successful in the first three games.
Bottom line: Georgia is the best team Xavier has faced this year, but they're not the kind of team that should be beating X. If the Muskies have aspirations of making a serious tournament run this year, they need to be able to handle teams like Georgia at home. If they can start quickly and keep it up tonight, they'll do just that.