Xavier came into this season searching for a sixth consecutive conference championship banner to hang in the Cintas Center rafters. The reigning champs were staggered early as they fell victim to a post-suspension hangover, but things looked like they were coming together at Fordham. Back in the friendly confines of Cintas on Wednesday, Xavier ran Duquesne off the court. Now, with their legs back under them and their self-assurance restored, the Muskies are one game into a pivotal five-game stretch of the season. Next up on the docket is St Bonaventure.
The Bonnies - at least on paper - don't pose the same threat that some of Xavier's recent Atlantic 10 opponents have. They come into the game with a 9-6 record, including 2-1 in conference. Prior to their somewhat surprising win over Dayton (which came largely courtesy of a Herculean effort by Andrew Nicholson, whom we'll discuss at length later), their most impressive victory was probably knocking off Buffalo on the road. After that, their scalps taken include names like Niagara, Canisius, and St Francis PA. Not exactly the stuff that NCAA tournament resumes are made of.
Since I've already pushed back the curtain a bit, and because he's one of my favorite non-Xavier A-10 players, we'll jump right in on Andrew Nicholson. A native of Ontario (the Canadian province, not the lake), he has been one of the better under-the-radar players in the NCAA at St Bonaventure. His numbers are a little bit down this year, but his 15.2/7.1/0.7 averages, coupled with his 1.6 blocks per game, are still nothing to sneeze at. He gets them on .518/.200/.753 shooting, which are pretty good efficiency numbers for a big man whom everyone knows is going to be the focal point of his team's attack. He's also one of the best rebounders Xavier will face this year; he grabs 11% of the his team's misses and 19.5% of his opponents' misses when he's on the floor. Both of those marks place him in the top 250 players in the country.
That attack is decidedly mediocre, despite being very good in most facets. The Bonnies can't shoot a lick from deep (31.6%), but they offset that by taking an above-average percentage of their field goal attempts from inside the arc, where their 51.7% is good for 55th in the nation. They're also 38th in the nation in terms of free throws taken per shot attempt, and they convert from the line at a very good 74.3% rate. Only 19 teams get their shots blocked less than the Bonnies, and, to top it all off, they rebound 36% of their own misses. All of those numbers are really quite good; they all fall easily within the top 100 in the nation.
So why is the St Bonaventure offense so average? Well, they simply can't keep hold of the ball. The Bonnies end 23.6% of their own possessions with turnovers, which is in the bottom 50 in the nation. A whopping 12.4% of their possessions end in live-ball steals; that's in the bottom 20 in the country. It's not like they play a high-risk, high-reward pace, either; their tempo is two possessions below national average and about five possessions slower than LaSalle or Duquesne. For a team that is so effective and relies so much on scoring inside the arc, simply holding onto the ball long enough to get the shots they want has become a crippling problem.
The Bonnies' defense is fairly average is most categories, which helps it add up to slightly above average on the whole. They defend the paint pretty well, holding teams to 45.6% shooting inside the arc while blocking 11.6% of opponents' two-point shots (74th in the nation). Out beyond the three-point arc, they are basically an average defensive team. They're slightly below average in defending the glass, which is somewhat odd considering how well they attack it at the other end. They also force turnovers just well enough to sneak into the top 100 in the nation, but not so well that it's a hallmark of what they do. Fairly average, fairly boring defensive team. Let's move on.
Six-foot-six wing Demetrius Conger is the team's other double-digit scorer. He puts up 13.3/5.7/2.1 on a stunning .588/.396/.791 shooting line. Combined with his ability to get to the line, Conger scores 1.75 points per shot attempt. His eFG% of 64.5% is 30th in the nation, and his TS% of 68.6% is 14th in the nation. What I'm saying is that Conger has elite scoring efficiency. He only takes about 18% of the team's shots when he's on the floor, though, which is even less than he'd get if shooting attempts were divided equally with no weight given to the player's merit. Conger has it in him to blow up though - he put up 23 against Va Tech, 27 against Niagara (I know), and 14 on 6 shots against UD. Keeping Conger from warming into the game is going to be a priority for Xavier on Saturday. Keeping him off the offensive glass, where he averages more than two boards per game, would be a good start.
The Bonnies are kind of hurt for scorers after that. Guard Matthew Wright gets 8.5/3.1/3.1 per game and has a positive A:TO, which is a big deal for a team that turns the ball over like it's recovered stolen property. His shooting line of .370/.312/.789 isn't doing him or the team any favors. Neither is the fact that he shoots eight times per game, more than anyone on the team other than Nicholson. Eric Mosely, a 5'10" junior, gets his 8.0/2.9/2.1 on .429/.351/.824 in fewer than 20 minutes per game. When he's on the court, he averages a shot attempt every three and a half minutes. That makes him the team's most frequent shooter other than Nicholson. Someone ought to tell these guys how good Conger is.
Six-foot-eight senior forward Da'Quan Cook is notable by virtue of grabbing 5.2 boards per game to go along with his 7 points. He spends most his time near the basket and is one of three Bonnies - along with Nicholson and Conger - who average more than two offensive boards per game. How he posts a .408/.000/.692 shooting line from that close is beyond me. Charlon Kloof is notable by virtue of having a funny name and also providing 2.7 assists and only 1.5 turnovers per game as the backup ball handler. Beyond that, he doesn't pose much threat on either end of the court.
-Who guards Nicholson? Andrew Nicholson has the size at 6'9", 250 lbs to cause real trouble for Xavier's laundry list of willowy forwards. Big Kenny has the bulk to bang with Nicholson, but his inside-out threat would pull Frease out from under the basket and into territory he doesn't favor. Best case scenario, Xavier's biggest space-maker is away from the bucket while St Bonaventure's offensive rebounders go to the glass. Worst case scenario, Nicholson uses his perimeter acumen to get buckets against Big Kenny. Nicholson is a tough matchup, which is how he averaged 20.8 PPG last year. Unless Robinson, Taylor, or Walker can add thirty pounds of muscle by the weekend, Xavier will have their hands full with him.
-Can Xavier keep the Bonnies off the glass? Xavier is a good defensive rebounding team, but they lack breadth outside of the distinctly broad Kenny Frease. Robinson, Walker, and Taylor all tip the scales at around 210. St Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson has about 40 pounds on any of them, and Da'Quan Cook has about 25. Combine that with the offensive rebounding threat of Demetrius Conger, and there's a good chance someone skinny for Xavier is going to end up trying to body someone big for St Bonaventure. The onus is going to be on Kenny Frease to stay out of foul trouble and stake a claim to as much real estate as possible in the middle, thereby freeing up Xavier's leapers to jump in space rather than trying to clear it for themselves. Holding a team to one and done on the offensive end puts pressure on each shot they take; doing so Saturday will help put Xavier in the driver's seat.
-Can Xavier keep Kenny Frease involved? It's obvious to most people who follow the Muskies that a priority coming out of the gates is to establish Big Kenny in the post. It's not uncommon to see him have three or four shot attempts before the first media timeout, and he has recently been converting those into points at a pretty admirable clip. Then it seems like X becomes more guard focused and the ball journeys towards Frease less frequently as the game goes on. Having a 7' monster in the middle is a huge asset, especially in conference play. An attack that does more to keep Kenny involved throughout the game might make the going a little bit easier for the rest of the team as the season wears on.
-Control Conger. Demetrius Conger has the ability to score points by the bushel from all over the court, but he can also disappear for long stretches of basketball. If he warms to the game, Xavier might be in for a long night. Dezmine Wells is the Muskie most closely fit to defend Conger, but Andre Walker may also have some time on him depending on who else is on the floor for the Bonnies. Whoever is guarding him is going to have to put a butt on him when shots go up to keep him from getting to the offensive glass. Dez Wells spoke earlier in the week about his desire to improve in disciplined rebounding, freely admitting that his high school coach encouraged him to eschew rebounding fundamentals in favor of simply out jumping everyone on the floor. Bodying up on Conger would be a nice crash course in rebounding discipline for Wells.
-Pressure the ball. St Bonaventure's biggest offensive flaw this year has been an inability to avoid the turnover. Xavier is not a team that has forced a ton of turnovers, but Tu, Cheeks, Dee Davis, and Dez are all capable of putting pressure on a ball handler, and the team showed on Wednesday how that can disrupt an opponent's offensive flow and lead to easy baskets. Nothing would get the Cintas crowd fired up faster than following the 16-point first half Xavier held Duquesne to with a similarly smothering defensive effort.
-Force the pace. St Bonaventure prefers to keep things slow and grind out basketball games. If they can hang close until the end, their prowess in the paint and execution at the free throw line bring a lot of unpleasant potential outcomes into play for X. If Xavier can get out and go early and often, putting more possessions in the game will give a greater opportunity for the better team (the Muskies) to come out on top.
Coming into this year, Coach Mack was averaging a loss and a half per season during conference play. With LaSalle as the last undefeated team in the conference and the preseason favorites having all been roughed up, the Atlantic Ten suddenly looks a lot more open than many people suspected it would. Xavier has long been the bully on the block, and the Duquesne game either served notice that they still are or illustrated how bad Duquesne might be this year. For Xavier to come out on top of the pile this season, they can't afford to blink again. That means winning all the games that they should and taking more than their share of the ones that should be close. St Bonaventure at home is the kind of game Xavier should chew up and spit out; it's time to start taking care of business.