Xavier v. Kent State: Preview

Chris Evans fights for the ball. - Eric Francis

After that shocking display against Vanderbilt, Xavier suddenly finds itself with questions to answer despite sitting at 6-2. With the Crosstown Shootout lingering just around the corner, these young Muskies have something to prove to their fans - and I suspect themselves - in Sunday's matchup against Kent State.

If Xavier's loss against Vanderbilt illustrated one thing, it is how little margin for error the Muskies have this season. Playing a team they should have beaten easily, X was let down by a stretch of bad play and a horrible performance from the free throw line and ended up heading into the crap shoot of OT. Vandy got hot, X made a couple of bad decisions, and a bad loss showed up on the resume. Continuous crisp execution is a lot to ask from a team with this little experience, but it is what Xavier will need to make something of this season.

Kent State comes into the game sitting at 5-4 and representing another team Xavier should beat. By and large on the season, the Golden Flashes have won the games they should have (Chicago State and Bethune Cookman, for example) and lost the games they played against better teams (Temple, @ Bucknell). With Northern Illinois and Central, Eastern, and Western Michigan still on the schedule, Kent State will no doubt cherish the opportunity to pick up a good win.

Team fingerprint:
Offense, simply stated, is not the problem for Kent State. While not exactly the Showtime Lakers, they know how to score the basketball. KSU only turns the ball over on 18% of their possessions. When taken in conjunction with their 36.7% offensive rebounding percentage, that means that the Golden Flashes don't waste too many opportunities to at least get a shot away. They also shoot 35.9% from behind the arc, though their offensive game plan focuses more on scoring the ball from inside the arc.

On the other end, Kent State forces turnovers fairly well. They probably feel obligated to, because what they do if the other team keeps the ball is fairly poor. Teams shoot very well against the Golden Flashes, connecting at a 34% clip from deep and a staggering 55% from inside the arc. Couple that with poor defensive rebounding and an alarming propensity for sending opponents to the line, and Kent State gives up points like they bet the over.

Depth is not an issue for Kent State, as they get almost 35% of their minutes from the bench. They are also a fairly tall team, which makes their interior struggles on the defensive end all the more perplexing. KSU is in the top 100 teams in the nation as far as experience on the roster.

Starters:
Kent State has shuffled the lineup several times this year, so take these with a grain of salt.

Chris Evans always starts, likely because he is the team's best player. A 6'8", 220-pound senior forward, he averages 16.7/7.2/1.9 with 2.4 steals per game on .505/.350/.709 shooting. Evans is a beast on the offensive glass, grabbing 13% of his team's misses when he's on the floor. Evans is a strong and scrappy player who draws fouls and lives at the free throw line; Xavier is going to have to account for him at all times.

Randal Holt - a 6'1" guard who is also a senior - loves to shoot the basketball. Despite 11 more misses, he has shot the same amount of times as Evans on his way to a .398/.415/.767 shooting line, suggesting he's not a bad shooter so much as a dude who makes bad decisions about when to shoot. His 14.1/3.0/2.2 game line somehow has him leading the team in assists. He also chips in 1.7 steals per game.

Six-foot-nine forward Mark Henniger is the only other Golden Flash who has started every game. His game line is a modest 5.2/4.3/0.4 on an equally pedestrian .514/.000/.579 shooting line. In fact, not a lot about Henniger jumps out in terms of traditional or advanced statistics. Apparently coach Rob Senderoff likes what he brings on the intangible side of things.

I'm going to guess that 5'11" freshman point guard Kellen Thomas will also start for the Golden Flashes on Sunday. Thomas averages 3.6/1.3/1.7 in 19.4 minutes per game, but he has been getting more time as of late. With almost as many assists as Holt in a hundred fewer minutes, it's likely Thomas' ball distribution ability and not his .333/.333/.647 shooting line that's getting him onto the court.

Guard Kris Brewer stands 6'4" and averages 7.0/3.0/1.6 on .404/.313/.762 shooting. Brewer turns the ball over like it's on fire, with a TO rate of 28.7%, though the fact that he averages almost a steal per game somewhat mitigates the deleterious impact of his propensity for passing to the wrong team.

Reserves:
Guard Devareaux Manley puts up 5.8 points in just eight minutes per game on .478/.500/1.000 shooting, but injury issues have kept him from staying on the court. He picked up 20 minutes against Bucknell in Kent State's last game, so he seems to be rounding into form. Freshman forward Chris Ortiz has been having a big impact for KSU, but he is out after having surgery at the end of November.

Six-foot-nine, 250 pounds forward Melvin Tabb has been in and out of the starting lineup. He gets 5.6/2.8/0.4 per game and shoots 53.1% from the floor. G/F Bryson Pope shoots .296/.167/.667 but still finds himself third on the team in FGA. That inefficiency takes the shine off of his 5.3 and 3.0 per game.

Three questions:
-How does Xavier bounce back?
The Muskies dropped a tough game against Vanderbilt last time out and now find themselves facing a quick turnaround for another home game. With Justin Martin out due to a concussion, it's going to fall to Christon to shoulder the load a couple of days after he suffered cramps late in the game. X has to find a way get a W in this game to put the disappointment of Vandy in the rearview.

-Who handles Chris Evans? Evans is a big forward who can step out and score (7-20 from beyond the arc), bang in the post, or clean up on the offensive glass. If you've noticed, that describes exactly nobody on the Xavier roster. The Muskies need to find someone who can get after Evans all over the floor and keep him from taking control of the game.

-Who is going to score from the perimeter? With Justin Martin down and Dee Davis in a tailspin, Xavier's outside scoring options are frightfully thin. Semaj Christon already shoulders a borderline absurd portion of the load, and Brad Redford isn't likely to step up as a primary scoring option. If Davis or Redford can't have a big impact on the game, Coach Mack may end up playing a Christon/Philmore/Robinson/Taylor/Stenger lineup for portions of tomorrow's game.

Three keys:
-Don't play the competition.
Other than the Fairleigh Dickinson game to open the season, Xavier's two largest margins of victory are Butler and Purdue. Stop and read that sentence again. The two teams Xavier has beaten by the most points are the two best teams they have played. Meanwhile, X has squeaked by Robert Morris, Drexel, and Drake and lost to Pacific and Vanderbilt. One of the hallmarks of a good team is taking care of business against teams that shouldn't hang in the game, and this young Xavier squad is still learning that skill.

-Protect the basketball. Kent State forces turnovers on one end and gets themselves extra possessions on the glass at the other end. Xavier can't afford to give the Golden Flashes extra possessions by being loose with the basketball. Offensive and defensive efficiency both start with keeping hold of the pumpkin.

-Force the ball inside. Teams harvest easy points in the middle against Kent State; only a handful of teams in the nation do a worse job of defending inside the arc. Travis Taylor had a good game last time out on the offensive end, and he, Philmore, and Robinson are the offensive keys to Xavier going into the Crosstown Shootout Classic on a winning note.

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