The newly emboldened Jeff Robinson will hope to lead Xavier to victory on Thanksgiving. - Joe Robbins
While the rest of us are stuffing our faces with turkey and all that good stuff, the Musketeers will be in Anaheim on a business trip. The game against Pacific is the first step in Xavier's attempt to bring home some hardware.
This season could scarcely have started any better for Xavier in terms of process, and it literally could not have started any better in terms of results. Three wins is the most you can accumulate in three games, and Xavier has managed that feat. The enthusiasm from the Butler trouncing was in some measure tempered by the tenuous nature of the win over Robert Morris, but they all count and the Muskies are as undefeated now as they were after three games last year.
The first three games were a strange proving process for Xavier. Losing any of them would have put the fan base on edge, but winning all three hasn't done too much to instill confidence that this is an elite squad. Some tough questions have been answered already, but there are still more that remain. Now that X has shown they can stomp a weaker opponent (Fairleigh Dickinson), outplay a tough team (Butler, who went on to spank UNC the other night), and win an ugly game against a team playing over its head (Robert Morris), the eye of skepticism moves on to Xavier's ability to win on the road. Their first test outside of the raucous confines of the Cintas Center will be the Tigers of Pacific.
We'll start with the defense, because Pacific is rubbish on that end. They do force turnovers well (23.8% TO%, 80th in the country) and are just a hair above average defending the glass. When they're not forcing turnovers, though, they do an awful job of forcing bad shots. Their EFG% against is 286th in the country, and they send opponents to the line at a prolific rate. Perhaps most staggeringly, they have blocked a grand total of two shots in the three games that they have played this year.
Offensively, it's almost the exact opposite. They shoot the ball well - 40.6% from deep, 53.4% EFG - but struggle in almost all other facets of the game. They turn the ball over on 22.2% of their possessions, only grab 30% of their own misses, and are 276th in the nation in getting to the line. They also rank 301st in the nation in steal percentage against, meaning they cough up a lot of live-ball turnovers. With their offensive and defensive weakness having almost no overlap, their intrasquad scrimmages must be a zoo.
Senior guard Lorenzo McCloud leads the way in both scoring and assists for the Tigers, posting a game line of 13.3/3.0/4.7. His shooting line of .611/.714/.722 is probably unsustainably high. Even with that success rate, he hasn't been a shoot-on-sight kind of guard; he takes only 16.7% of his team's shots when he's on the floor and has needed just 18 FGA to get his 40 points on the year. McCloud draws seven fouls per 40 minutes of playing time, so Xavier defenders would be wise to keep their hands to themselves around him.
With McCloud being so judicious with his shot attempts, it stands to reason that someone must be picking up some extras, and 6'1" junior guard Sama Taku is one of those guys for Pacific. He averages 7.7/2.7/2.0 on .417.250/.667 shooting. He takes 27.1% of the team's shots when he's on the floor, which is by far the most of any player seeing significant minutes. He also leads the team in steals, averaging 1.3 per game.
The final member of the three-guard set that Pacific usually starts with is senior Colin Beatty. He is by far the most quiet of the guards offensively, but he leads the team in rebounding with his 3.0/6.0/1.3 line. His lack of scoring is a product of lack of execution more than lack of effort; he is currently shooting .273/.000/.500 on the year.
Forward Ross Rivera is the team's second-leading scorer and another beneficiary of McCloud's reticence to shoot. He averages 10.0/4.3/0.3 per game on a .538/.000/.286 shooting line. Despite his propensity for scoring inside the arc, he has only gotten to the line once this season. That's not an encouraging stat for a 6'7" forward.
Khalil Kelley rounds out the starting five in fairly unimpressive fashion, averaging just 18.3 minutes per game. The 6'8" junior is shooting .615/.000/.286(!) on his way to 6.0/3.0/1.0 per game. He also has a block on the year, which more or less makes him an eraser in the middle as far as this team goes. His next turnover this year will be his first.
Six-foot-six senior Travis Fulton plays only 15 minutes per game off the bench but averages 6.3/4.0/0.7 on .538/.333/1.000 shooting. He is battling some nagging problems but gives a skilled presence on the court when healthy. Forward Tony Gill gets 6 PPG in his 13 minutes per game off the bench. That's about it for notable reserves for the Tigers.
-Where does Isaiah Philmore fit in? Xavier's junior forward has his debut delayed by three games due to an error in his paperwork stemming from his days at Towson, but he is now ready to go for the Musketeers. He adds a powerful presence up front that Xavier's leaner forwards don't bring to the table, but he also has the ability to step out and stretch the defense. I'd assume that he will not start but will come off the bench early, but he may be worthy of a starting spot in Coach Mack's estimation. A Christon/Martin/Philmore/Taylor/Robinson five would offer a level of size not many teams can outdo.
-How does Xavier bounce back from the Robert Morris game? To hear Xavier fans response to the team's performance against Robert Morris, you might be surprised to be reminded that they did indeed win the game. The fretting is warranted, though; X did not look good for long stretches of that game. Ball security and guard play were key areas of improvement coming out of that game; if Dee Davis and Semaj Christon show the ability to quickly adjust from game-to-game, that bodes well for the rest of the Musketeers' season.
-Can Xavier handle the road? This one is fairly straightforward. After three games at home, the young Musketeers will be heading into hostile waters for the first time. These three upcoming games over the weekend will be another hurdle for the team to clear if it expects to contend this season.
-Pressure the ball. Pacific can actually be a fairly efficient offense if given a chance to score the basketball, but Taku and McCloud both have a propensity for struggling to hold onto the ball. If Davis, Christon, and whoever else finds himself manned up on one of the Tigers' guards are able to keep them from initiating their sets, Xavier will be able to hold Pacific in check.
-Get the ball inside. The Tigers don't have a terrific inside presence, and their effective height is 245th in the nation. Simply put, their bigs are fairly little. Xavier has waves of big men of varying skill to run at their opponents in the paint, and the height and athleticism of Taylor, Robinson, Farr, Stenger, and even Martin and Philmore should be enough to overwhelm Pacific in the paint.
-Make a run. Against a deep and experienced Robert Morris, Xavier was able to stretch the lead to seven on several occasions but could never put the final capper on the game. Pacific is also deep (41.7% of minutes come off the bench, 17th in the nation) and experienced (seventh in the country when weighted for minutes played). If Xavier lets them stay close, it could come back to bit the Muskies in the end. If X can let Pacific know early on that it's not going to be a game tonight, it can be clear sailing into the second round.