Here at Banners on the Parkway, we earmarked Xavier's road trip to Dayton as the potential true measure of how "back" the Muskies truly are. After the stumble at LaSalle, Xavier has once more looked like a team that is capable of taking on anyone in the conference. The teams that Xavier has gotten healthy against, however, have been for the most part limited by injury (BJ Monteiro, Carl Jones) or lack of skill (Fordham), and X has done it mostly at home. Heading to a packed and probably frenzied UD Arena to face a Dayton squad that has suddenly risen again to relevance after the departure of Brian Gregory (who could have seen that coming?) will be a different animal altogether. If Xavier wants to put the conference on notice that the A-10 title once again runs through the Cintas Center, this is going to be the game to do it.
Under first-year coach Archie Miller, the resurgent Flyers have posted a record of 13-5, including going 3-1 in conference play. As one of the few remaining Atlantic Ten teams with a single loss, UD enters Saturday's game a half game behind Xavier for the top spot in the conference. Dayton has played the toughest in-conference schedule of any team in the A-10 to this point, knocking off St Louis, Temple, and LaSalle with a loss to St Bonaventure thrown in. Notable out-of-conference results include wins over Alabama and Minnesota as well as two not-bad losses to Seton Hall and Murray State and one embarrassing home dissolution against Buffalo. A lot has changed since that 11/30 loss at UD Arena, though.
Dayton is a borderline elite offensive club, owing in large part to their commitment to scoring the ball from beyond the arc. Dayton is not especially good at this, mind you; their 35.5% success rate from deep lands them outside the top 100 in the nation in that department. More than 37% of their shot attempts are from deep, however, which puts them squarely in said top 100; it also means they shoot threes half again as often as Xavier does. While their frequency hasn't gone up, UD has hit 41.5% of their three-point attempts since the beginning of conference play.
It's not all about chucking them from the cheap seats (if you will) for Dayton. They're 72nd in the country in 2P% with 50.9%, and they hit 74.6% of their free throws. Rebounding isn't the team's calling card, but they're above average in grabbing 34.1% of their own misses (122th) and allowing opponents to retrieve only 30.% of theirs (97th). This is not a very good defensive team outside of its ability to force turnovers on about 1% more of their opponents' possessions than the national average. They allow teams to hit 33.4% of their threes (about average) and 50.4% of their twos (not good, defensively speaking. Despite Dayton's +2.5" of effective height, they allow teams to score almost 55% of their points inside the arc.
The team centers around Southern Illinois transfer Kevin Dillard, a 6'0" junior guard. The former Saluki puts up a line of 12.1/2.7/5.7 with 1.9 steals per game and an A:TO of almost 2:1. While his shooting line is nothing special at .412/.300/.793, it's a huge step up from what the Dayton faithful were accustomed to watching Juwan Staten try to shoot. Dillard is steady and reliable on the offensive end, which is exactly what Archie Miller and his team need in a point guard.
Chris Johnson - a familiar face to Xavier fans - is still in there plugging away, putting up 10.3/5.5/1.8 in his final season as a Flyer. He is one of a number of players UD has who is a consistent threat from deep, as his .438/.430/.806 line should attest. He is also a persistent and effective offensive rebounder, grabbing 9.5% of UD's misses while he's on the floor. That's not a bad number for someone who is only 6'6", and it translates to more than two offensive rebounds a game for Johnson. Johnson is still recovering for concussion-like symptoms, but there seems to be no indication that he won't be ready to go come Saturday.
Paul Williams and Matt Kavanaugh round out the regular starters for UD that Xavier will be seeing Saturday. Williams is a 6'4" senior guard who never met a shot he didn't like. Almost half his field goal attempts come from three, and his 9.2/2.6/1.5 come on a .362/.389/.811 shooting line. His numbers from three and the free throw line make you wonder how he possibly manages to shoot 26-77 from inside the arc. Kavanaugh is Dayton's center and - at 6'9", 250 - their best bet at matching up with Big Kenny. He posts 8.6/5.8/0.9 on .559/.000/.883 shooting. More importantly, he's a maniac on the offensive boards, grabbing 16.6% of UD's misses while he's on the court (13th best in the nation).
You'll notice I've only given Dayton four starters to this point. UD lost a regular starter back in December when Josh Benson suffered a season-ending knee injury. He was posting 10.9/5.2/1.0 and shooting 61% from the floor before he went down. I'd assume 6'9" Luke Fabrizius will get his starting role. Fabrizius is the typical Euro-style forward, shooting .494/.444/.667 and getting 6.9/2.1/0.8 per game. He has hit more threes than any Muskie but Mark Lyons, but he ranks fourth on the Flyers in that department. Fabrizius has been playing with a mask lately to protect a broken nose, but don't expect that to affect him too much.
Drake transfer Josh Parker provides guard depth off the bench, and his 9.2/2.0/2.1 line suggests he does a pretty good job of it. Like Williams, however, he can't seem to stop shooting, and his .388/.201/.800 line is even worse than that of the man he subs in for. Six-foot-seven forward Devin Oliver is the first big off the bench and he get 3.5 and 4.5 and can't shoot a lick. Alex Gavrilovic is a 6'9" Frenchman who also sees minutes inside. UD gets a little bit more and 32% of their minutes from non-starters, which is a bit above the national average. With Benson down, that number seems likely to diminish.
This is an important game not only in terms of conference standings and March resumes, but also mentally. Both of these fan bases hold the other team in somewhat low esteem, and they both like nothing more than to see the other one knocked off. Xavier has been king of the pile for a while now, much to the chagrin of UD fans and – I suspect – the team. Nobody likes to lose, especially not to someone who lives 90 minutes down the road and is going to passively lord it over you. It’s the last step back to right for X or the first leap to the front of the line for Dayton under Archie Miller. The Blackburn Review does a great job analyzing UD’s inferiority complex towards X; I’d recommend you find a few minutes to read about it here.
-Will Tu come to score? I recently had a conversation with my dad about Holloway's increased ball dispersal as opposed to his old, high-scoring ways. He mentioned that we would not have beaten Purdue and Vandy if Tu hadn't scored. I countered that Tu has always looked to get others started first and that he could have turned on the scoring in the last few games if he needed to. He replied that Xavier won't beat UD if we're counting on Jeff Robinson to score a dozen. I didn't have an answer for that. Tu's unselfishness has shaken Xavier from its stupor and put the team back atop the Atlantic 10. Things aren't getting easier from here, though; it would be nice to see Tu demonstrate the same mean scoring streak that has distinguished him up until very recently.
-Can Big Kenny dominate? Kenny Frease is the largest man in terms of displacement in the A-10. He can use his strength to get into positions in which his defender is borderline powerless to stop him. Sometimes, though, Frease's assertiveness in the middle disappears as his teammates stop feeding him. Other times he struggles to catch the ball or finish plays that should be pretty basic. If Frease can convert the finishes that he fights to position himself for and knock down 65-70% of his FT, he'll transition from a very good complimentary player to a dominant force in the paint. Don't say it's too late
-How flexible is Xavier? Xavier's defensive resume is impressive, especially on the perimeter (see below). A lot of that goes down to the intensity brought by Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, and Dezmine Wells, however. Dayton features a couple of bigger guys whose outside shooting is going to force Xavier's interior players farther towards the arc to play effective defense. Dez Wells and Andre Walker are probably going to be called upon to check a bigger player (Wells) and pursue defense farther out than normal (Walker). At some point along the line, Jeff Robinson and Travis Taylor are going to have to do the same thing. Their ability to be versatile on the defensive end is going to be a big key to this game for X.
-Defensive intensity. Xavier has proven that they are able to flip a switch and lock teams down. They crushed Duquesne and St Bonaventure in their respective first halves with this ability. St Joe's had the halftime lead in Xavier's mid-week game, but X came out and smothered them in the second half. Apart from two made buckets in the first minute and two free throws in the last one, the Muskies allowed 10 second-half points. Playing at UD is always tough, and this Flyers team has the talent to hurt the unwary. Allowing the crowd to get into it by giving up easy buckets is not going to make Xavier's task any easier.
-Pressure the perimeter. Dayton, as we discussed above, loves to shoot the three. Whether Fabrizius or Parker ends up getting the start (Parker has started twice this year, Fabrizius four times), UD will feature four players who prefer the perimeter of the floor spread out around Matt Kavanaugh. Xavier is 11th in the nation in 3P% against, 12th in EFG%, and 31st in overall defensive efficiency, and they will need every bit of that defensive skill Saturday. UD lives to chuck it from, and there's no better way to gain momentum in a hurry than to convert a couple of threes. Xavier has to choke out the three-point arc and force UD to find another way to score.
-Put together a whole game. We are yet to see Xavier put together a comprehensive, wire-to-wire effort befitting the team's ability level since the end of the UC game. Even during this recent run, X has either coasted to victory or put together an inexplicably shaky first half before establishing dominance. I have a feeling neither of those is going to get the job done against the Flyers on Saturday. Playing their most despised in-conference rival at their place, the Musketeers are going to have to show up and get after it for forty minutes if they want to come away with the W.
Xavier has the best defense in the Atlantic Ten. Dayton has the best offense. Dayton wants to move the ball, shoot threes, and outscore you. Xavier wants to get in your way and then in your head; they want to lock you down and then zip you up. Dayton brings more finesse, Xavier brings more power and attitude. There's a sense in which I really wouldn't want to see it any other way. For five straight years, Xavier has won the Atlantic Ten regular season title. After a rough stretch, Xavier has gotten healthy at home against the perennial also-rans of the league, while UD wants to prove they've come out of the Brian Gregory wilderness and are once again a force to be reckoned with in the conference. Between them, these two teams will have 21 conference games left after the final horn sounds on Saturday. Despite the fact that anything can happen in that time, this game feels pretty darn big right now.
Andre Walker posted the following picture on his Twitter account. He said that it was given to him by one of Coach Mack's daughters, who said he was her favorite. I'm posting it here on behalf of all of us who still dream of becoming perfecinal basketball players.