St. Louis has been the semi-surprise team of the Atlantic 10 this year. While many pundits expected them to be improved, very few foresaw the Billikens consistently close to the top 25 in the polls and pulling down gaudy KenPom (13) ratings. The Bills now sit at an impressive 15-4 and trail A10 leaders Dayton by only one game.
Early season wins over Washington, Villanova, and Boston College got St. Louis good publicity, but the Billikens haven't slowed since then. Only a 75-68 loss to Loyola Marymont would qualify as bad, with Rick Majerus squad having lost three other close games to Dayton, Temple, and New Mexico. The Billikens have managed to carry their early season momentum into A10 play, and they have done it with defense.
St. Louis defense isn't just good for the Atlantic 10, or good for a mid major, it's 13th in the nation in defensive efficiency kind of good. The Billikens get it done on defense in a variety of ways. First, they turn their opponents over. The Billikens force turnovers at a 24.7% clip, good for 18th in the nation. Guards Kwamain Mitchell, Mike McCall, and Jordair Jett all crack the top 355 players in the nation in steals per defensive possesion.
The Billikens also force their opponents into bad shots. St. Louis' allows an EFG of only 44.4%, good for 28th in the nation. While the Billikens are good outside, allowing a 32.9% conversion rate, they are absolutely stifling inside the arc, letting opponents convert only 42.9% of shot attempts. That number is 25th in the nation and, coupled with a 9.5% block rate, means the Billikens are extremely difficult to score on inside. That has forced opponents to attempt nearly 25% of their field goals from behind the arc against St. Louis. That is a staggering number.
Going hand in hand with the tough interior defense is a team that doesn't allow many offensive rebounds. St. Louis allows a second chance on only 29% of all defensive possessions. That mark puts them 50th in the nation and adds to their reputation as a horrid matchup inside. 6-5, 205 pound sophomore Dwayne Evans leads the way by grabbing defensive rebounds at a glass cleaning rate of 22.4%. 87th in the nation puts Evans in elite company, especially considering his relative lack of size.
Finally, St. Louis drives down scoring by playing at an inordinately slow pace. Billikens games feature 62.1 possessions as a rule, good for 321st in NCAA D1. Only 24 teams in the nation play slower than the glacial men of Majerus. By forcing a slower tempo and choking off the inside, the Billikens limit the opportunities teams have to beat them from deep.
None of that would matter though, if St. Louis couldn't score. They do that well too, though, occupying the #30 spot in the nation with an offensive efficiency of 111.8. Leading the way for the Billikens offensively is efficiency machine Brian Conklin. Conklin averages 14/5/1 on a shooting line of .586/1.000/.853. While the three point number is skewed by his having only tried one, the other two numbers speak to the ability of the 6-6 forward to score inside. Unlike most Xavier players, Conklin also converts his many opportunites at the line, having missed only 14 of his 95 attempts.
Right behind Conklin and scoring 12 a game is Kwamain Mitchell, whose .432/.382/.610 line is much more in line with that of a Musketeer. Mitchell is a consistent scorer and has only dipped below double figures seven times in 19 games. Australian Cody Ellis is the only other Billiken averaging double figures, but his line of 11/4/1 belies his ability to defensive rebound effectively. Ellis is something of a sniper, shooting 40.2% from deep and taking over five threes a game. His ability to step out and his 6-8, 240 pound frame make him the kind of matchup that has destroyed (see Sam Gower) the Musketeers this year. Senior Kyle Cassity also converts 40% of his nearly three three point attempts a game. His line of 5/2/3 isn't all that impressive, but you can count on Cassity spending a good deal of time on the floor.
Rick Majerus will use nine players over double digit minutes and get well above the national average in minutes from his bench. Mike McCall and his .483/.400/.583 will come off the bench and run the point in the event that Mitchell begins to shoot too much and not rely on his superb ability to protect the ball. McCall is having a bit of a down year but, as his line indicates, is an accurate shooter who doesn't force the issue. 6-1 guard Jordair Jett also fills in at a gurad spot and manages 5/2/3 despite having hair that would charitably be called ridiculous. Jett is intelligent enough to have dropped the three ball from his game completely (only six attempts this year) in favor of moving inside the arc, where he converts 49% of his shots. Much like a Xavier player though, Jett only converts 56% of his free throw attempts.
The last man who figures to see siginificant minutes is Rob Loe. By far the tallest player on the Billikens at 6-11, Loe is surprisingly bad at blocking shots (.5 per game) or rebounding (2.5) per game. What Loe can do is shoot, sporting an impressive .467/.375/.643 line. Lest you think that 37% from deep is a fluke, Loe lifts more than twice a game. He, like Ellis, could create real problems for Xavier defensively.
- Home court advantage? Xavier is 9-2 at home and has only lost once (Gonzaga) with their full complement of players. St. Louis is 1-4 in true road games and only beat the something less than fearsome Salukis of Southern Illinois. Xavier has a chance to extend what is a 43 game winning streak at home in conference against a team that struggles on the road. A win here would boost Xavier's RPI and edge them back up toward respectable in a host of computer rankings.
- Is there any heart? I detailed after last game just how soft the Musketeers looked down low. The Billikens kill teams that can't compete with them on the blocks. Kenny Frease will again be the biggest man under the bucket, don't look for Loe there much, and he absolutely must perform. Andre Walker leads the team in rebounding but also didn't show against Dayton. Ellis and Evans are stocky and strong, so Xavier has to be ready for a fight. Frease will be looking over his shoulder for the relentlessly rebounding Travis Taylor almost from the off. After his weak performance against Dayton, that's justified. This would also be a great time for the Sandman to reemerge.
- Can Xavier beat a good team? This one is pretty much yes or no. St. Louis is every bit the squad that Dayton is. The Billikens took the Flyers to overtime on the road before succumbing. I don't need to remind you that Xavier did not. Since the Shootout and The Funk Xavier has pounded the weak sisters of the A10, but been thoroughly beaten by La Salle and Dayton. A win over a good team would be immense.
- Make adjustments: Dayton came out gunning against Xavier in an attempt to stretch the floor. Coach Mack never adjusted and the second half turned into a show of penetrate and pitch as exhausted Musketeers chased phantoms. St. Louis can also shoot the ball a little bit, but will not play the frenetic pace that the Flyers did. If Mack can't make the adjustment, this game is as good as lost.
- Play big: Andre Walker, Travis Taylor, Jeff Robinson, and Kenny Frease are all as big as anyone that the Billikens will play. If Xavier's bigs can actually act big, this game could turn into a rout, with the Musketeer guards greatly superior to their counterparts. If Robinson keeps getting caught behind his man on the post and Kenny insists on not sealing his man, we're right back to Dayton again.
- Control the tempo: It sounds simple, but bouncing back after getting trounced by a rival isn't easy. Xavier must have the confidence to push the ball, run at every opportunity, and pressure on defense. St. Louis will try to turn this into a grind it out game. Xavier cannot allow that to happen, because the Billikens grind out wins better than anyone this side of Wisconsin.
It's time for Xavier to show that they are still a special team. 8-0 looked good, and the run after The Funk looked good. Games like Dayton are hard to shake though. A fast start followed by a convincing win would be just the elixr this team, and this fanbase, need. Hopefully, Coach Mack is animated early, Dez Wells gets room to run, and Tu Holloway takes some first half shots. All of those thigns serve to get this team rolling. Without them, a bad January could stretch into a March played on ESPN.