"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." That was Thomas Paine, from his pamphlet series The American Crisis. Mr. Paine was writing in late 1776 regarding the state of what would become the United States of America when he penned those lines, but they ring true to anyone suffering any sort of crisis. The situation in which Xavier basketball finds itself doesn't quite compare to what the Colonials were facing, but stretches like these certainly strain the fandom of those who would follow the Musketeers only when times are good.
With that said, the conference season tips off this week and the Muskies are 0-0. Feel free to choose your favorite - or deride your least favorite - cliché about fresh starts, but the fact is that Coach Mack is 25-14 in regular season non-conference games 29-3 within the Atlantic 10. Coach Mack's first - and hopefully only - chance for his 30th conference victory will come against LaSalle. Like many things Xavier has gone through this year, the LaSalle game is not shaping up to be the tiptoe through the tulips it looked like when the schedule was announced. In fact, Ken Pomeroy believes that Xavier isn't even going to win:
Seeing that is a real kidney shot, but LaSalle isn't as bad as they have been in years past. Despite losing Aaric Murray - who was their best player last season - when he chased greener pastures in West Virginia, the Explorers are a significantly improved squad compared to their output last year. A lot of this is thanks to their renewed focus on the defensive end. While LaSalle's goal last season seemed to be sprinting up and down the floor racking up high-scoring losses, this year's iteration of the squad has come to the realization that all college guys have to at some point: there's more to life than scoring.
The Explorers are 22nd in the nation in opponents' EFG%, holding their foes to a grim 43% mark in that category. Most of their damage is done inside the arc, where opponents have only shot 40.3% against them this season. They are also forcing turnovers and steals at a much higher rate than they were last year, coming into the game at 67th and 33rd in the nation, respectively, in those two categories. Things get a little better from behind the arc; LaSalle is allowing their opponents to put up a basically average 33.7% success rate from deep.
Offensively, LaSalle can really score the basketball. They're shooting 50.4% inside the arc (95th in the nation) and 39.9% from beyond it (17th in the nation). They also take care of it really well; only 17.3% of their possessions ends in a turnover, a mark good for 20th in the country. LaSalle falls down in the two main areas you'd expect of a team that lost its best big man would. They are 320th in the country in getting to the free throw line and 274th in rebounding their own misses. If LaSalle misses a shot on the offensive end, there's a better than 70% chance that they're not getting another one on that possession. Numbers like those will keep your offense from capitalizing on good shooting and good ball security, which is why LaSalle is only 106th nationally in offensive efficiency.
While they played at a dead sprint last year (almost 73 possessions per game, 9th fastest in the nation), La Salle has slowed things down considerably this season. They're not exactly Princeton now; at 69.4 possessions per game, they're still faster than Xavier and all but 68 other teams in the country. That's a far cry from the blurring pace they put up last season though. I suspect this has gone hand in hand with the improved defense; no longer intent only on pouring buckets home as fast as possible, the Explorers now have to take some responsibility for what happens on the other end.
Leading the way is junior guard Ramon Galloway, who started his career at South Carolina. His 15.2/4.5/2.5 line comes with a steal and a half per game and is courtesy of a .488/.470/.700 shooting line. Despite being 6'2", 175, Galloway doesn't get to the line very often, shooting 14 of 20 from there on the year. Most of his damage is done via the jump shot; more than half his field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc this year, and he's very good at making them count.
Tyreek Duren was exceptionally inefficient as a freshman, but he's making great strides in his second year with LaSalle. The Explorers' point man is putting up 13.4/3.7/4.2 and 2.0 steals per game while posting an A:TO of better than 2:1 and shooting .486/.356/.767. There's not much else to say about him; he can shoot it a little, but his lateral quickness is his real selling point. He's doing a much better job of taking care of possessions this year, and to cap it all off, he's stealing two of the opponent's chances to score every game.
LaSalle's top four players in minutes and top four scorers are all guards; the largest of those is senior Earl Pettis. Standing 6'5" and weighing in at 215, he's basically Dezmine Wells' size; despite that, he's tied for the team lead in defensive boards. His game line is 13.2/4.4/2.1 with 1.8 steals per game, and he's shooting .458/.348/.786 on the year. Sam Mills rounds out the quartet; his 12.2/2.2/3.0 is nothing to sneeze at, but he's the only one of the four averaging less than a steal per game. His shooting line of .457/.460/.706 is a little bit scary, and he's second on the team in made three-point baskets.
Jerrell Wright and Devon White both stand 6'8" and split the minutes allotted to the token interior scoring threat fairly evenly. Wright is slightly more effective, putting up 8.9 and 6.2 on .533/.000/.583 shooting. White tips the scales at 240 - ten pounds more than Wright - and goes for 7.8 and 5.1 on .506/.000/.610. Neither man is often the focal point of the offense. The four guards average a total of 42 shots per game; the two bigs average 12. LaSalle lives and dies by the offensive production of its perimeter players.
I suppose this would be a good time to mention the kicker to LaSalle's improved numbers this year; they haven't beaten anyone. Their best victory to this point has been Bucknell at home. Any time they've ventured into the best 100 or so teams in the nation, they've gotten beaten. Their strength of schedule, according to Ken Pomeroy, is 320th in the country. When there are only 346 teams being ranked, you have to do some real work to play a schedule that ill thought of. The Explorers have good numbers so far, but - with the possible exception of a road game against Pittsburgh in November - Xavier will be the toughest team they've played up to this point.
-How does Xavier match up? Against a fast-paced team that relies heavily on guard play, Coach Mack has two options. The first is to go so big that LaSalle has to play most of the game with one or two of its best players on the bench to avoid being over-matched defensively and on the glass. That would entail something like Holloway/Lyons, Lyons/Wells, Walker, Taylor, and Frease on the floor. That team would probably dominate the glass and the offensive end, but it would left with real questions as Walker and Taylor tried to match up on the other end. The other is to hold to form and not worry about the match up problems. That would be the standard Holloway, Lyons, Wells, Walker, Frease formation we've seen from Xavier. Both lineups pose benefits and problems, but I'd personally like to see Xavier work from their standard set most of the night and trust that Big Kenny and Walker/Taylor can hold it down in the middle.
-Can anyone on Xavier be counted on to shoot the three? Xavier is 324th in the nation in three-point shooting frequency, electing instead to attempt the majority of their shots from inside the arc. It's no wonder Coach Mack doesn't encourage the team to lift more from deep; their 33.7% number from beyond the arc is good for 189th in the nation. Holloway and Lyons put up good numbers early, but both of them have slid of late. Justin Martin is the team's best three-point shooter at 40.7%, but his inconsistent effort has landed him afoul of the coachin staff from time to time. Brad Redford has been dreadful. Someone needs to step up to provide a deep threat for Xavier, and it had better be sooner rather than later.
-Who is Xavier's third scorer? The Gonzaga game illustrated how vital it is for the Muskies to have a third player upon whom they can rely to score the basketball. Kenny Frease started off the game well but faded after hitting four of his first five shots. Dez Wells never gained traction as a scorer and ended up 2-7 from the field. With Mark Lyons shooting without conscience or much success, the Musketeers desperately needed someone else capable of getting some points. When that player emerges (God willing, assuming he [the player, not God] exists), Xavier will be better able to suffer through cold spells from Kenny and Cheeks.
-Play some defense. The Musketeers are a team that has been successful when they were based on their efforts on the defensive end. During the most recent 1-4 slide, however, the Muskies have leaked like the Bismarck. LaSalle is a very good shooting team that manages to be somewhat inefficient offensively despite that fact. Xavier is capable of shutting down good shooters, but they haven't been showing that of late. Putting the brakes on the Explorers' offense at their place would be a huge step in the right direction for the Muskies.
-Control the boards. LaSalle is a poor rebounding team and they are on the short end of the spectrum as far as their big men are concerned. Other than 6'11" freshman Steve Zack - who plays only about a quarter of the Explorer's minutes - they don't have anyone who can challenge Kenny Frease for size on the glass. After getting crushed on the glass against Gonzaga, the Muskies need to have a bounce back game. If Xavier can't control the glass against LaSalle, there's the distinct possibility that they're a bad rebounding team.
-Get the conference season off on the right foot. Starting the conference season with a two-game road trip is less than ideal, but at least the second of those games is at Fordham. If Xavier can take down LaSalle at their place, Fordham should be a simple matter of handling business. That sets X up for a three-game home set against Duquesne, St Bonaventure, and St Joseph's that hold the potential for three more good wins - all three of those teams are in Ken Pomeroy's top 100. A 5-0 start to the conference season would be a proper remedy to this recent slide, but it all starts with winning against LaSalle.
Paine went on to say in The American Crisis, "The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap[ly], we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value." Xavier looked to be en route to storming through the season early on, but the Musketeers have suffered some setbacks of late. As of now, though, the second record listed matters more than the first, and it reads 0-0. If you can, cast your mind back to how you felt last year coming off the Shootout. If you're anything like me, it wasn't good. Now think about the growing sensation that things were back on track as Xavier knocked off one A-10 opponent after another despite being hobbled by no shooters and no bench. Xavier's situation is no more dire this year, but it's hard to feel any better about it. National esteem and program-wide confidence came easily at the start of things for Xavier; now they're going to have to be fought for, if they're to be recovered at all. For Xavier and its fans, the new season starts today.