Xavier is 9-5 right now and they seem to be struggling as much as they have in recent memory. To buoy your spirits, many of your favorite media outlets or favorite Xavier fans are probably reminding you that Xavier was also 9-5 last year. Others are probably telling you that the last time X dropped five games out of six, they ended up losing in the Elite Eight thanks to some dodgy officiating going Duke's way. Both of these facts are true; neither of them is pertinent to the current team. The Musketeers are reeling badly right now, and everyone in the A-10 is gearing up to take a shot at the champ while he's on the ropes. Last year's 9-5 is not analogous to this; that team had an abundance of the fire for which this squad is searching. The Elite Eight squad got to that point on nothing short of a miracle. If we as fans are consoling one another by saying "Don't worry, another miracle could happen," we're in worse shape than the team is.
All that is background to Saturday's borderline must-win game at Fordham. The Rams could legitimately be the worst team in the Atlantic 10, but that doesn't mean victory is assured for the Muskies. Fordham is 6-1 this year when defending its home gym, though their lone loss was a less-than-impressive 18-point setback against Lehigh on the first of December. More recently - and to somewhat more national acclaim - they knocked off a very good Harvard team at home on January 3. They come into this contest carrying an 0-1 conference record thanks to a four-point road loss against UMass. All that to say that, while Fordham has had their issues this year, they're still not a walkover at home or in the conference.
Much like LaSalle, Tom Pecora's team likes to get the ball out and go on offense. They run at just a smidgen under 70 possessions per game, which is 58th fastest in the country. Pecora - both last year at Fordham and before that at Hofstra - has been notable for implementing a fast pace, so it's not all that surprising that the Rams are running up and down the floor this year. What is also unsurprising - but in a morbid way - is that a lot of possessions aren't adding up to a lot of baskets for Fordham; they're solidly in the bottom 50 in the nation in offensive efficiency.
This is thanks in large part to the fact that they are a dreadful shooting team. Only 25 teams in the entire country post a worse effective field goal percentage than the Rams. They're 286th in the nation with a 43.3% mark from inside the arc, and that's their best shooting ranking. Their free throw shooting is bad enough to make Xavier's look good; it's right now lingering at 61.6%. Things hit a nadir from behind the arc; the Rams' three-point shooting percentage of 27.5% as a team is good for 324th out of the 346 teams currently playing division one basketball. There are worse shooting teams out there, but you'd have to do a lot of looking to find them.
Perhaps because they get so much practice, the Rams are actually borderline stellar on the offensive glass. They rebound 35.3% of their own misses, which is solidly in the top 100 in the nation. Considering they're not a very tall team (average height is 6'4", effective height only +.7"), it stands to reason that they get by on effort and numbers on the offensive boards. They're right about average in terms of defending the defensive glass, having opponents grab 32% of their own misses.
Defensively, Fordham is comparatively good, or at least respectable. While by no means elite, their overall adjusted defensive efficiency is good for 120th in the nation. They force turnovers at a rate right about the national average, but excel at making those live ball turnovers. They end opponents' possessions with steals more than ten percent of the time, a mark good for 88th in the country. They're top 25 in shot blocking, turning away 15.4% of their opponents' two-point field goal attempts. Field goal percentage defense isn't their strongest suit, but they are in the 75th-100th range nationally in defending both inside and outside the arc.
The most important cog in their defensive machine is senior center Kervin Bristol. He stands 6'10", 225 and - despite averaging only 23 minutes - gets 2.2 blocks per game. Bristol blocks more than ten percent of opponents' two-point shot attempts while he's in the game, placing him among the elite shot blockers in the nation. Unfortunately (for Fordham fans), he's borderline inept at the offensive end. He puts up 4.0/7.7/0.6 per game to go with his 2.2 blocks and employs a gruesome .489/.000/.429 shooting line to get there. When a guy who hasn't shot a three all year and spends most of his time rooted in the paint is shooting under 50%, that's not good. He does grab almost three offensive boards per game though; Xavier may be best served to let him go back up with them.
Of course, it's junior forward Chris Gaston who gets most of the pub for the Rams. He puts up a very good 16.8/11.2/1.1 per game, throwing in 1.5 steals and 1.8 blocked shots for good measure. His shooting line is somewhere between mediocre and good, at .425/.600/.630. You'd like to see a forward with five threes attempted all year shooting slightly better, but something tells me Coach Pecora isn't going to bench him to make a point. Gaston is a machine on the glass at both ends; he averages a little over four boards on the offensive glass alone.
Second and third on the team in scoring are a pair of young New York guards. Brendan Frazier is a sophomore out of Brooklyn who posts 10.7/2.3/3.6 with 1.3 steals per game on a grim shooting line of .398/.258/.600. He is a shooting machine despite leading the team in assists, lifting almost ten shots per game. His profligacy doesn't stop there, as he also turns the ball over 2.2 times per contest. He does assist almost a quarter of the team's buckets when he's on the floor, which isn't nothing.
Bryan Smith is even more prodigal in his approach to the basketball, shooting .379/.316/.519 on his way to 10.2/2.6/1.5 and an A:TO under one thanks to 1.8 turnovers per game. Despite hitting barely a third of his shots, he's still only four behind Frazier in field goal attempts on the year. He's also from Brooklyn and is a freshman, so he still has time to grow. Though he's not without talent, there's a long learning curve between where he is and any sort of efficiency as a college basketball player. Even Smith pales in comparison to Devon McMillan though. A 5'10" freshman guard, he shoots a staggering .299/.107/.634 on his way to 9.1/2.8/3.1 with 1.6 steals per game. Don't let that assist number fool you into thinking he's a ball handler though; he averages four turnovers per game.
That is really the crux of the problems with Fordham's offense: they simply don't get enough out of their possessions. They turn the ball over almost a quarter of their trips down the court, they take bad shots, and they can't get to the line. Frazier gets 1.09 points per shot, Smith gets 1.06, and McMillan gets 1.01. Even leading scorer Chris Gaston only gets 1.13. For comparison's sake, Dee Davis is the worst of the Xavier players averaging 15 minutes with 1.05 PPS. Travis Taylor's 1.23 would lead Fordham, and Tu Holloway's 1.66 blows them all out of the water. Until Pecora can figure out how to get his team to hold onto the ball and make better decisions with it, they'll continue to get inconsistent results.
-What did Travis Taylor and Justin Martin do? Martin was a DNP/CD last time out in a game that was begging for his skill set, and Travis Martin got four minutes while watching Jeff Robinson run up and down the court in his position. Coach Mack has repeatedly stated that the guys who bring it the hardest in practice - especially on defense - are going to be the ones with their warm-ups off come game day. It stands to reason, then, that Mack may have been making a point during the LaSalle game. If he was, I really hope those two guys read it loud and clear. For X to salvage this season, they need the quality depth those two players promised at the beginning of the season.
-Can Big Kenny put together a whole game? The blueprint for Xavier basketball involving Kenny Frease this year has been frustratingly consistent. The Muskies force the ball in to Frease early on, and he usually responds with some quick baskets. About five minutes into the game, his supply is cut off for whatever reason. Then he takes a break around the under 12 media timeout. By the time he returns to the game, the early promise has been scuttled and he ends up posting something like 10 and 5 on 5-11 shooting. If Xavier can consistently feature the big man, he might retain the flow of the game through both halves. His presence down low would go a long way towards taking the pressure of an offense that has increasingly seemed to consist of Tu and Cheeks looking for opportunities to take over.
-How good is Xavier on the glass? If you just look at the raw numbers, Xavier is functionally a top 100 rebounding team. Lately though, X has allowed teams that should have no business hanging with them on the boards do just that. Particularly troubling was the fact that X allowed LaSalle to actually outperform them in offensive rebounding. Offensive boards have a tendency to lead to cheap buckets, which the Muskies could use more of. Rebounding on both ends is often largely a matter of effort; Xavier needs to put in the work to keep the ball alive on offense and to choke off possessions on defense.
-Pressure the ball. In a game against a team that averages 15 TO and has three underclassmen guards with track records of having real trouble hanging onto the pumpkin, Xavier should be primed to get their defensive swagger back. Tu, Cheeks, and Dez should be way too much for Frazier, Smith, and McMillan to handle, and I'd hate to be a shaky guard watching Dee Davis check into a game with instructions to come hassle me. That, coupled with the fact that Fordham can't really shoot at all, makes this game the functional equivalent to training wheels for the Xavier defense. Xavier can't really afford to lose this opportunity to get right defensively, and that starts with renewed defensive pressure up top.
-Keep Gaston away from the back board. Chris Gaston is not blessed with a whole lot of size, but he does have a motor that doesn't quit on the boards on both ends. He is in the top 150 players in the nation in rebounding percentage both offensively and defensively, and he will be the single biggest detriment to Xavier's attempts to control the glass. Andre Walker will likely start off guarding him, but whoever is assigned to defending Gaston needs to get a butt on him as soon as the Rams shoot. If there's one thing we know about Fordham field goal attempts, it's that they're likely to generate rebounding opportunities. Cutting off Gaston's access to those will go a long way towards securing victory for the Muskies.
-Take the free points. This one is almost painful to feature, but not as painful as Xavier's finishing around the rim has been of late. Kenny Frease, Travis Taylor, and Jeff Robinson have all struggled to convert baskets inside the charge circle. When Mark Lyons' three pointer cut the deficit to five late against LaSalle, I couldn't help but think back to all the easy points Xavier left on the floor. Free throws (the team shot 62.5% last game aside from Tu's 11-12) and layups should be free points for the offense; Xavier needs those while they try to figure out what the plan is in the larger picture.
Coming off the loss to LaSalle mid-week, Coach Mack was spitting nails in the postgame interview with Byron and Joe. He openly questioned the team's intensity and pointed to a lack of pathos on the defensive end as the most disappointing issue in Xavier's recent slide. Now he's had two (more) days to work on turning that around with a very winnable game against Fordham coming up. If Xavier can mop the floor with the Rams, it doesn't get everything back, but at least it's a step in the right direction. A shaky win or - God forbid - a loss will leave Mack in the same state of furor and Xavier fans in full-blown panic mode.