Seven and 266/267ths games into the season, Xavier's year was going along swimmingly. They had knocked off three BCS schools and were 9 seconds from toppling a fourth en route to an 8-0 record. Then a series over incendiary events culminated in the bench-clearing brawl at the Cintas Center against UC and the Muskies' season went - at least temporarily - off the rails. Oral Roberts ran Xavier off their own home floor Sunday, and the undefeated record and top 10 ranking that X had worked so hard to secure went up in smoke.
Now Xavier has flown a third of the way around the globe to take on Long Beach State University. LBSU is off to a 5-5 start, but don't let the record fool you; they have played the hardest schedule in division one to this point. Their three most recent losses have been 13 points at Louisville, 8 points at Kansas, and 6 points at UNC. Dan Monson's crew is willing to go anywhere to play anyone, and they've acquitted themselves quite well in the process. While their win at Pitt is one of only three D-1 contests in which they've come out on top, LBSU is a serious threat to Xavier.
Any conversation about the 49ers has to begin in one of two places: Casper Ware, or their pace. Since pace sets the context for numbers, we'll discuss Ware further down. Long Beach State plays one of the fastest games in college right now, averaging 71 possessions per game. Only 25 teams play at a quicker clip than LBSU, and there's no doubt that they prefer to turn the game into a track meet. That doesn't mean they can be beaten by grinding it out though; Pitt lost to them in Pittsburgh despite holding the game to just 65 possessions.
LBSU is also an extremely experienced team. Seven players get regular run (the 49ers aren't deep; only 18.7% of their minutes come from outside their starting five); of them, six are upperclassmen. Of the six players who use more than 15% of the team's possessions when they're on the floor, five are seniors and the other one is a junior. Freshman Michael Caffey is the only underclassman who gets regular minutes, and he's on the floor to give the ball to other people (1.6 APG), provided they're on his team (0.6 TO per game). This team has a core of seasoned, talented players, and it's going to ride them as far as they'll go.
Owing in part to the difficulty of the schedule they've faced, Long Beach State has some ugly defensive numbers. They are allowing opponents an effective shooting percentage of 51.6%, including 37.3% from deep. They are also right about average on the glass at each end, which isn't surprising for a team that ranks 146th in the nation in effective height. Long Beach State's defense is also somewhat unspectacular in terms of forcing turnovers, again falling right in the middle of the national pack. Their defensive efficiency is still good enough to crack the top 100, though; against a mediocre offense, LBSU can be a nightmare.
The colloquially biggest but physically smallest cog in the machine is quicksilver point guard Casper Ware. The 5'10" senior gets 17.5/2.2/3.8 on a .410/.333/.864 shooting line. While Ware does most of the ball handling and distribution for the 49ers, his A:TO is just a hair above 1. Ware leads in scoring by virtue of volume more than efficiency; he has shot 30 more threes than anyone else on the team and 37 more total attempts from the floor. He also averages 1.7 steals per game; I'm sure Darwin Davis is just as glad Tu is back as Xavier's primary ball handler.
Joining Ware in the back court is 6'5" guard Larry Anderson. Aside from the obvious matchup problems his size creates, Anderson is a pretty darn good ballplayer. Ware gets a lot of the press, but Anderson's 15.1/4.7/3.8 comes on a much more efficient .534/.410/.745 shooting line. He is also a menace in the passing lanes (1.4 SPG) and does have some turnover problems (2.8 per game). Anderson and Ware both make hay at the line; between the two of them, they average 8 PPG just from free throws. Anderson gets there a lot more efficiently though; his free throw rate is just outside the top 100 in the nation.
Six-foot-seven JuCo transfer James Ennis plays the wing, putting home 10.1/3.4/2.8 on .521/.364/.750 shooting. He's not passionate about rebounding, but Ennis does just about everything else well. He gets 2.1 steals per game, posts a positive A:TO, and gets 1.43 points per shot. He's also tied for the team lead in blocks, just for good measure.
Eugene Phelps and TJ Robinson hold down the paint for Long Beach. Robinson is the tallest regular on the team at 6'8", and he puts up 13.6/10.6/0.6 on .510/.000/.675 shooting. Robinson is borderline insatiable on the glass; his offensive and defensive rebounding rates are both in the top 100 in the nation. Phelps is pretty good on the offensive glass, grabbing more than two boards per game at that end. At 6'6", 235, he brings breadth but not a lot of height with his 8.6 and 5.9.
Long Beach State is very good at scoring the ball in the paint, owing to three things. The first of those is their pace; more up and down ends up tiring the opposing bigs, leaving the area near the basket more open in the transition between a fast break and the half court. Ware's speed and ability to penetrate also opens up finishing opportunities in the middle, both for himself and for his teammates. The third of these is the efforts of Robinson and Phelps on the glass. Each of those players rebounds more than 10% of his teammates' misses when on the court; those lead to a lot of second chance points for the 49ers.
-Can Xavier keep up? Team speed is a big asset for Long Beach State. Everyone knows about Ware, but Anderson and Ennis can also get out and run, and Phelps and Robinson move well for their positions on the court. Mark Lyons and Dez Wells are two of Xavier's most athletic players and two of the guys most capable of keeping pace with a quick opponent. Unfortunately, both of them will not be participating in Thursday's game. For Xavier to have a chance for a favorable result, they'll need to find a way to slow down the full-throttle pace of LBSU's players.
-Who guards Ennis/Anderson? At 6'5" and 6'7" and capable of playing the perimeter, Anderson and Ennis create matchup problems for a lot of very good teams. With Dezmine Wells in the game, he and Andre Walker would be the obvious choices. Sadly, Dez is not going to be participating in this contest. Jeff Robinson has the span and athletic ability to cover one of the players, but he often looks lost on defense and doesn't offer much at the other end. Justin Martin can get buckets and seems to be growing into a passion for defending, but he is a slappy, risk-taking defender who has a penchant for picking up fouls or giving up easy buckets in pursuit of the flashy play. Color me concerned in this regard.
-Can Big Kenny bounce back? Like Gulliver being swarmed under by the citizens of Lilliput, Kenny Frease could not surface above the waves of smaller defenders Oral Roberts threw at him. With that learning experience under his belt - not to mention another four days to recover from getting punched in the head and half the best back court in America returning - can Kenny Frease make his size advantage tell against Long Beach State. If he can, he and Tu could very well lead Xavier through to the other side of Cheeks' suspension. If not, Holloway is going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do all by his onesie.
-Find the right lineup. Coach Mack is going to be working to try to fit square pegs into round holes at the off guard position all night. Justin Martin, Tu Holloway (with Dee Davis at the one), and Brad Redford all figure to get some time at the shooting guard, with various other players having the potential to see cameos at that position. Long Beach State gives X matchup problems, but the Muskies are going to need some points from the SG at the other end, too. The sooner Coach Mack can find a lineup that is effective on both ends of the floor, the better things will be for X.
-Read the pace. LBSU obviously loves a fast-paced game, but they've proven taking the air out of the ball doesn't guarantee beating them. For that matter, running doesn't guarantee that they'll beat you, as both Kansas (80-possession game) and UNC (78-possession game) have proven. Xavier has the horses to get up and down the court, but - with Cheeks missing - Tu is going to have to know when to run it and when to lift off the throttle. Wasting possessions while playing your opponent's preferred pace is not a recipe for success.
-Ride Tu Holloway. There were stretches last season where Xavier's lead guard was the whole offense, and he proved that he has the chops to take over games against good opponents. Holloway has a habit of playing himself into games before getting it going late, but I'm not sure Xavier has that luxury in the opener at Diamond Head. If Tu can come out and send the message early that he's going to control the game, Xavier will have a chance to shake off the ORU debacle and settle into the task at hand. Tu acknowledged that he is a leader on the team and his actions let Cheeks and Dez down against UC; he has a chance to influence the program in a much more positive way come Thursday night.
This is a scary game for a Xavier squad still missing half of its top four players. Long Beach State is experienced, tested, and determined, and I don't think Xavier is going to back them down just by virtue of coming in with a ranking and a pedigree. LBSU would be a huge win to have on the resume for Xavier going forward into March, and knocking them off would send the message that all is still as it should be in the Muskies' domain. With the conference season fast approaching, X is running out of opportunities to add big wins. Beating Long Beach State isn't going to be easy, but adding quality to a March resume never is.