C.J. Aiken weighs about as much as my left leg, but he knows how to play ball.
During their slide from #8 in the nation to 0-1 in conference, Xavier was the victim of plenty of potshots from anonymous basketball sources, opposing fans, and inflammatory writers looking to push traffic towards their websites. Through all of this, Coach Mack remained consistent in preaching that the only thing that mattered to him was the confidence and buy-in of the guys in the locker room. Xavier subsequently righted the ship against Fordham before performing a whole-team catharsis against Duquesne. Thirty good minutes against St Bonaventure were let down by the final ten once the game was in hand, but the swagger that the team had collected by winning its first eight games has returned.
The Muskies round out their three-game home stand Wednesday night against St Joseph's. The Hawks come into the game at 12-6 overall and 2-2 in the Atlantic 10 schedule. Excepting only their six-point road defeat to American, St Joe's non-conference schedule reflected well on them as a team. Losses away from home to Seton Hall, Iona, and Harvard were coupled with ten wins, including defeats of Creighton, Drexel, and Villanova. It's a commentary on the current power structure of NCAA basketball that Villanova might be the worst opponent of St Joe's that I listed (again, except for American). They've been less impressive in conference play; losing to UMass on the road is understandable, but dropping a game to Charlotte at home isn't. Duquesne (in OT) and Fordham were the Hawks' victims.
When I'm compiling these briefs on Xavier's upcoming opponents, things occasionally jump out of the numbers so jarringly that it take a moment to compute them. The level of defense St Joseph's plays inside the arc is one of these. They hold opponents to a staggering 38.6% on two-point shots. That's not 38.6% from the floor, that's 38.6% from inside the arc. Lay ups, dunks, mid-range jumpers; that sort of thing. If you're wondering why, look no further than their blocked shot percentage. The Hawks swat away almost 20% of opponents' attempts from inside the arc. Only Syracuse (22.2%) and Kentucky (21.8%) turn away a higher percentage of said attempts.
You'd think this would translate into St Joe's being an elite defensive team. Maybe they'd be able to pressure the ball more and create more turnovers, or maybe they could push out beyond the arc and challenge guards, knowing that everything was getting erased in the middle. You'd be wrong. The Hawks force turnovers on 16.5% of opponents possessions, which is 331st in the 345-team nation. Teams also shoot 36.2% from behind the arc against St Joe's, which is 247th in terms of defensive stinginess. Surprisingly, they are also well below average in terms of defending the glass, allowing offensive rebounds on 33.3% of opponents' missed shots. You'd think shot-blocking and defensive rebounding would be results of the same skill set, but St Joseph's has managed to excel in the former while being sub-par in the latter. Strange world.
On the other side of the ball, the Hawks have hardly fared better in rebounding. They're 276th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, which is somewhere between bad and shameful. They do just about everything else well, though. Playing at an average pace, they still manage to have four players in double figures in scoring average. They can pull this off because, as a team, they're really good at shooting the ball. They post a collective shooting line of .479/.375/.668 (okay, 67% from the stripe is bad). They're in the top 30 in the nation in two-point field goal percentage and the top 60 in three-point field goal percentage. They're also a tick above average in avoiding turnovers.
A couple of things hold this team back from being flat-out elite offensively. The first is their rebounding, which we touched on. The second is their inability to get to the free throw line; they linger in the 200s in the nation in terms of FTA per FGA. The third is their inability to convert from the stripe. That 66.8% mark is not very good - 233rd in the nation. They only get 18% of their points from the free throw line; an average team will get over 20%. Everything about St Joseph's offensive numbers screams passive. We'll get back to that later on.
Junior Carl Jones leads the team in scoring and assists with a line of 17.2/3.4/3.4 on a shooting line of .419/.353/.812. The 5'11" guard turns the ball over at an alarming clip; his 63 TO are enough to push his A:TO back under one. He does add 1.7 steals per game, a tally that easily leads the team. He is also far and away the most proficient Hawk in terms of making his way to the free throw line; his 101 FTA lead the team by 35.
On the opposite end of the profligacy scale is sophomore guard Langston Galloway, who averages barely more than one turnover per game. His TO rate of 10.6% is 59th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy's latest numbers. More eye-popping than that are his shooting numbers; his shooting line of .526/.510/.717 is likely one of the best Xavier will see all year. He doesn't come by those numbers cheaply, either: he's 49-96 from deep and 102-194 overall. His EFG% and true shooting percent are both in the top 30 in the nation. If you're not familiar with those stats, just take my word on the fact that those are really good numbers. Despite his ability to put the biscuit in the basket, Galloway is only fourth on his team in usage rate.
In the middle of the floor for St Joe's stands 6'9" 190 lb forward CJ Aiken. He puts up 11.4/5.8/1.3 per game and - as his shooting line of .586/.313/.730 attests - he could probably score more if he took more than his current mark of 17.7% of his team's shots while he was on the floor. That's not what people talk about when they talk about Aiken though, instead focusing on the fact that he blocks almost 13% of opponents' two-point shots while he's on the floor. Only 45 teams in the nation eclipse that mark; when he's on the floor, Aiken does it all by himself. Aiken has blocked 78 shots this year; Xavier has blocked 71.
Halil Kanacevic, a 6'9" forward, also gets his share of blocks (1.9 per game, 6.8% of opponents' attempts), but his 7.3/6.8/3.4 line shows that he is a pretty versatile player. Distributive prowess aside, he's kind of an anchor on the offensive end, shooting .417/.333/.463. Most of the opposite things apply to Ronald Roberts. His 10.2/6.0/0.1 line reflects two more division one assists this season than I have, and he shoots 60.8% from the floor. The players do have abysmal FT% (Roberts' is 48.5%) in common, so there's that.
The Hawks' bench is thin (319th in the nation in bench minutes), but reserve guard Chris Wilson gets 3.1 assists in his 21.6 minutes per game and - at nearly 2:1 - has the best A:TO on the team. Finally, any article regarding St Joseph's has to have a reference to the Todd O'Brien debacle before they'll let you post it online. The short version is that O'Brien is a St Joseph's player who graduated last year wants to transfer to UAB and play out his eligibility much as Andre Walker is doing at Xavier. Phil Martelli, however, will not provide the necessary release to let O'Brien - who is practicing with the UAB squad and studying at the school - be eligible to play. He's not saying why, though everyone online has at least one speculative guess. It's not pertinent to this game, but it is an interesting story. Read more here, here, and here if you're curious.
-Can Kenny go? Kenny Frease seemed to suffer a foot or ankle injury in Xavier's game against St Bonaventure Saturday that took him out of the game. Word is that Big Kenny did not practice on Monday and the situation is being played by ear at this point. If Frease can go, he gives Xavier a size advantage inside and puts pressure on the Hawks' shot blockers. Frease has 4 inches and 15 pounds on Kanacevic and 3 inches and 80 pounds on Aiken. If he's out, suddenly both of those players will be facing Xavier forwards over whom they hold a size advantage.
-Can Xavier score inside against the Hawks? The above paragraph discusses in brief the worry that Xavier will have to position two smaller forwards in the middle with two very good shot blockers. The questions one might have watching Walker, Taylor, and/or Robinson go to work with Aiken and Kanacevic are one thing, but X doesn't count on those three guys to carry the mail. Who they do count on are Tu, Cheeks, and Dez, and Tu and Cheeks especially are not blessed with great height. All three of those players can score from the perimeter, but Xavier is a better team with them getting to the rim. If they are able to find a way to take the shot blockers out of the equation - or at least limit their effectiveness - Xavier has a much better chance at the win. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing the 6'9", 190 lb CJ Aiken try to rise with the 6'4", 220 lb Dez Wells; with the explosive amount of jumping ability involved, the result is sure to be spectacular no matter what happens.
-Are Xavier's shooters ready to go? Mark Lyons is an increasingly reliable threat from deep, but I'm more interested in Brad Redford and Justin Martin here. Martin's number on the year is far superior to Redford's, but Redford has been himself lately and has spoken of feeling stronger and more confident every day. Speaking of confidence, Martin has recently made Jeff Robinson look like Butch Cassidy in the swagger department. Against a team with the fifth-best two-point defense in the nation but the 247th-best three-point defense, one or both of Redford and Martin will probably have a say in the result of the game.
-Get out and go. Xavier's tempo has slowed from about two possessions per game above average to about one now that conference play is here, but turning this game into a track meet could be beneficial for X. St Joseph's is a good shooting team, but they seem to prefer getting there out of their sets. On the other end of the court, the opponent can't choke out the paint if you left him at half court. Despite what you might think if Xavier's last game was the first one you ever saw, uncontested dunks really are much easier than most shots.
-Force the Hawks to dribble. You may recall above that I said everything about the Hawks offense screamed passive. They don't get to the line much, they don't spend much time around the boards, and they can really shoot. All that points to a team that would rather shoot jumpers than have the defense chest them up and dare them to drive. Defensive aggression has recently re-become a calling card of Xavier; that needs to continue against St Joe's.
-Make the extra pass. Like aggressive defense, Xavier has recently also rediscovered the value of sharing and moving the ball. They have had 37 assists on 50 made buckets in their last two games, which is a really good ratio and a sign of an offense in flow. Shot blockers are often more dangerous coming from the weak side as a help defender than they are against the man they're guarding; if the Muskies look to move the ball one more time before shooting - perhaps taking a cue from Andre Walker, who occasionally unselfish to a fault - they'll either keep the Hawks honest or get a lot of easy lay ups.
St Joseph's represents a meaningful step up in the level of competition from Fordham, Duquesne, and St Bonnie's. They are also the segue into Xavier's first trying passage on the conference schedule; the Muskies next two games are at UD and at home against St Louis. With that in mind, it's vital for Xavier to wrap up this home stand on a winning note and head off to Dayton with some momentum. Basketball is as much about matchups as it is about skill level, and the Hawks are a tough matchup for the Muskies. If Xavier can keep doing what they have been, they'll hit I-75 north with their swagger fully restored.