Xavier v. Vanderbilt: Preview

US PRESSWIRE

Xavier faces Vanderbilt in a matchup of two programs rebounding from major offseason losses. The Commodores have struggled so far this year, while the Musketeers seem to have righted the ship. Winning today's game would be a big step for both.

Like the Purdue game, Xavier's upcoming matchup with Vanderbilt comes on the heels of a thriller last year. Down ten midway through the second half, the Musketeers rallied to force overtime on a spinning Mark Lyons layup with only seconds remaining. Xavier went on to dominate the overtime and cruise to a 12-point victory. This year, nearly every major player from that game on both sides is gone, leaving another series being contested more by laundry than rosters.

Like Xavier, Vanderbilt is trying to reconstruct from the ashes of something of a golden era; weighted for time spent on the floor, the Commodores are 316th in the country in experience at the collegiate level. Unlike Xavier, Vanderbilt doesn't have Semaj Christon, and their season is suffering for it. After opening with a 25-point home drubbing of Nicholls State, the Commodores embarked on a three-game losing skid culminating in a dire loss against Marist that saw them post 33 points in 60 possessions. Vandy bounced back to spank UTEP, but a loss at home to Villanova last Saturday brought their record to 2-4 on the year.

Team fingerprint:
Offense has been the problem - or at least the biggest problem - for Vandy this year. The team simply struggles to put the biscuit in the basket, shooting .396/.323/.659 as a whole. They are not aided by the fact that an absurd 41% of their field goal attempts are launched from behind the three-point arc. The national average, for comparison's sake, is just a tick under 33%. An offensive rebounding percentage of 25.7% is 308th in the nation and does nothing to help a team that has already had over 200 offensive rebound opportunities in just six games. They rank solidly average in turnover percentage, which constitutes a bright spot for this offense.

Things are better at the other end of the court. The bad news is that Vandy's opponents post a 50.3% EFG%, which places the Commodores' defense 225th in the nation in that department. The good news is that they only allow and offensive rebounding percentage of 25.9%, placing them in the top 20 in the nation at defending the glass. Much like on offense, they force turnovers at an average rate. If you tune into a Vanderbilt game, expect to see an average number of turnovers.

The bench is frightfully thin for Vanderbilt; only 30 teams get fewer minutes from their reserves. The suspension of shooting guard Dai-Jon Parker and the injury to freshman swing man A.J. Astroth haven't helped matters in that regard. This no doubt contributes to Coach Stallings' willingness to play a plodding 64-possession pace (269th in the country). Staggeringly (for a team that shoots so many of their shots from deep), Vandy is quite tall. Their average height is almost 6'6" - more than an inch taller than the average team - and their bigs are 2.5" taller than national average at each position.

Starters:
The team leans heavily on 6'4" guard Kedren Johnson. The sophomore leads the team in scoring, assists, steals, shots taken, shots made, three-point shots taken, three-point shots made, and minutes and is second in rebounding, blocked shots, and free throw attempts. He puts up a game line of 16.7/4.7/2.8 with 1.7 steals per game on a shooting line of .474/.385/.611. The lad's not shy, averaging six and a half three-point attempts per game.

Junior Kyle Fuller is nominally the team's point guard, though he splits actual PG duties with Johnson. Fuller averages 11.3/2.5/2.7 on .393/.227/.750 shooting. Despite his relative lack of success from deep - and in a recurring theme for this squad - he has already put up 22 three-point shots on the year. Fuller only gets called for 1.5 fouls per 40 minutes played, so good on him.

Six-foot-nine forward Rod Odom is the tallest member of the starting lineup, but he plays small on his way to 9.5/4.5/0.7 on .322/.222/.722. Despite making only 2 out of every 9 three-point shots he attempts, Odom still puts up four and a half threes per game. Math majors may note that means he makes about one per game; guys who have played a lot of basketball will assume he likely then backpedals down the court with his hand still held high from the finish of the shooting motion. The fact that the tallest guy in the lineup is third in rebounding and second in three-point attempts leads one to question how much time he spends in the paint where he belongs.

German import Kevin Bright leads the team in rebounding despite being 6'5" and showing up on the roster as a guard. His 6.8/7.2/1.5 game line comes on .455/.600/.500 shooting, though that mark from deep comes on a modest 9-15. Despite playing 72% of the team's minutes and having the best true shooting percentage on the squad, Bright's usage rate is only 15.3%. His defensive rebounding percentage is 27.7%, good for eighth in the country.

Shelby Moats is a 6'8", 225-pound forward who fills out the rest of the starting lineup. His dire .310/.176/.600 shooting line translates to game averages of 4.0/3.2/1.2. You might expect someone with those superficial stats to be fairly unremarkable even at a deeper statistical or visceral level. In Moats' case, you would be correct.

Reserves:
Six-foot-eleven center Josh Henderson has gotten three starts this year but averages only 17.7 minutes per game. He goes for 3.3/3.0/0.3 in his somewhat limited action. Forward Sheldon Jeter is just 8-23 from the floor but 4-9 from beyond the arc on the year. Cameroon native James Siakam rounds out the fairly shallow bench for Coach Stallings, averaging 3 points in 12 minutes per game.

Three questions:
-Can Semaj guard Kedren Johnson? Johnson is a fairly dynamic guard who can score in a variety of ways. At 6'4", 215, he has the body to create a matchup problem against most other combo guards. Things shape up fairly straightforwardly (if you will) for Dee Davis to guard Fuller and Justin Martin to man up on Bright, leaving Christon responsible for Johnson. We've seen what Semaj can do on the offensive end, but this will be a good test to see how mature he is on the other side of the court.

-Can one of Xavier's forwards establish himself? If you have sneaked a peek ahead on your calendar, you've no doubt noticed that the game against Cincinnati is fast approaching. UC happens to be packed this year with athletic, nasty forwards willing to get out and go in transition or scrap in the paint. It probably won't take a superlative effort from Robinson, Philmore, and/or Taylor to win against Vanderbilt, but I'd feel a lot better going into the Shootout knowing Xavier had someone inside who could more than match the toughness of warm butter.

-Can Dee Davis re-find his game? From Jordan Crawford to Tu Holloway and now to Semaj Christon, Xavier has continually been able to rely on the fact that they will probably have the best guard on the court in any given game. In Terrell Holloway and Mark Lyons, Crawford and Tu had a reliable backcourt mate who wasn't afraid of the spotlight and could more than hold his own in crunch time. Dee Davis started the season quite brightly, but his production has wavered a bit recently. His three-point shot is still highly effective, but his finishing has been suspect and - even more disturbingly - he has shown a propensity for getting beaten off the bounce on defense. It would be highly beneficial for Xavier if Dee could regain his early-season form and look back at the past few games as just a blip on the radar.

Three keys:
-Get out and go.
Vanderbilt is a thin team that is obviously uncomfortable with an up-tempo game. Xavier, on the other hand, has speedy guards and forwards who can sprint the floor. The more possessions a game has, the higher the likelihood that the superior side will prevail. Based on that premise, it would behoove Xavier to get the number of possessions in the game into the upper 60s or low 70s.

-Let them shoot. Against Purdue, Xavier charged down every three-point shooter en route to forcing the Boilermakers into a 0-17 mark from the floor. While I'm not advocating letting Vandy shoot uncontested threes, a more measured approach to perimeter defense should be called for. If a team is willing to take 41% of their shots from behind the arc while hitting on 32% of those attempts, Xavier should be more than willing to let them chuck ineffectually from deep.

-Take care of business. Ultimately, this is a young team that lost by 17 to Marist at a neutral site. There is no reason a team with a black mark that significant on its recent history should give Xavier trouble at the Cintas Center. If the Muskies focus on the task at hand, execute at a high level, and don't get caught assuming the win is in the bag, the win should be in the bag. This is not a game that should be giving Xavier an inordinate amount of trouble.

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