Xavier v. Temple: Preview

Wouldn't break my heart to see this guy crying again very soon.

This is the write-up for Xavier's conference game at Temple from 2004. As you can see, that was also a time at which Xavier was not looking so hot. The win took their record to 19-10, which - especially in that year's Atlantic Ten - is solidly in the "need to win the automatic bid" territory. Xavier isn't in that same territory just now, but they're darn close. Most projections have them heading into the A-10 tournament at 19-11 and 10-6 in the conference. That 2004 team was led by an undersized senior guard with the heart of a lion and an underachieving senior big man who pulled it all together for one magical run. It's not difficult to look at Xavier's roster right now and hope for Tu Holloway in the role of Lionel Chalmers while Kenny Frease fills Anthony Myles' shoes. For any realistic hope of that happening, Xavier can really only afford one more regular-season loss at the very most. With a daunting road showdown with Saint Louis still looming, Saturday's game against Temple is huge for the Muskies.

Temple currently has a record of 18-5, including a 7-2 mark in conference play. That 7-2 is good for a scant half-game lead over the pack of teams lingering in second place in the A-10. From the outset of the year, Temple has made a case for themselves as the class of the A-10. They knocked off a very good Wichita State team in November, had hard-fought losses away from home against Purdue and Texas, and beat Villanova by 11. Their signature victory came January 4th, when they knocked off Duke at home. Despite early stumbles against UD and Richmond in conference, a win over Saint Louis on the road and their current six-game conference winning streak have positioned Temple at the top of the Atlantic Ten heading into their date with the reigning conference champions.

Coach Fran Dunphy's team appears undersized this year, with an effective height of -1.9", but that is down in part to the time 6'11" center Michael Eric missed. The Owls have been getting it done on offense first and foremost by protecting the basketball. Their turnover rate is in the top 50 in the nation at 18.2%, and only 7.1% of their possessions end on opponents' steals. Temple connects on a stunning 40% of their three-point attempts as a team, good for 9th in the country, and also hits almost 51% of their shots from inside the arc. Despite their three-point abilities, they only take about 32% of their field goal attempts from deep. Offensive rebounding is not a strong suit for Temple; they only recover 31% of their own misses.

Defensively, Temple takes away the three-ball and forces everything inside. They only allow opponents to shoot 30.4% from deep (32nd in the nation) and - more importantly - only allow opponents to take 28% of their shots from behind the arc. Only 40 teams in the nation best that mark. Inside, their defense is fairly pedestrian, as teams connect on 49% of their two-point attempts. Look for that number to drop as Michael Eric plays more games. They are just about average on the defensive glass, allowing opponents to rebound 32.5% of their misses.

Starters:
Senior - and Philly native - Ramone Moore leads the way for Temple, putting up 18.3/4.2/3.2 on .437/.402/.757 shooting. The 6'4" guard can fill it up from all over the floor, having knocked down 41 threes on the year. He's also averaging a steal per game on the defensive end. Ball security is not his strongest suit, but his 1.3 A:TO is still nothing to sneeze at. When he's on the court, he takes 28.6% of the team's shots. He's not shy.

Nor is fellow 6'4" guard Khalif Wyatt, who takes 24.1% of the team's shots when he's on the floor. To put that in perspective, those two combined for almost 53% of the team's shots when on the court; Tu and Cheeks' combined number is barely 50%. Moore and Wyatt are on the court looking to pull. Wyatt puts up 16.6/3.3/3.3 on .477/.387/.838 shooting. He has also hit 41 threes on the year and posts an A:TO of 1.4. The junior is good for 2.2 steals per game and is generally a menace all over the floor.

It seems like Juan Fernandez has been at Temple forever, but this is finally his senior year. The Argentine point guard goes for 11.2/2.7/3.8 on .399/.417/.727 shooting. His 1.1 points per shot make him the least efficient scorer in the Owls' backcourt, but his A:TO is 1.8 and he spends a good portion of the game with the ball in his hands. He's not as active on the defensive end as Wyatt and Moore, averaging less than a steal per game. Like those two, however, he is listed at 6'4".

Closer to the basket, forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 8.7/6.5/2.5 on a shooting line of .589/.000/.636. Despite being slightly undersized at 6'6", he averages almost a block per game and rebounds like a fiend, especially at the offensive end. He grabs more than 10% of his team's misses when he's in the game, accounting for almost three offensive boards every time out. He also adds a little over one steal per game, just for good measure. He doesn't need (or receive) a lot of the ball, taking only 12.9% of the shots while on the court, but he does all the little things to keep Temple going smoothly.

Coming back off of a fractured kneecap that has kept him out of action for more than half of the season is center Michael Eric. The 6'11" Nigerian is a defensive menace, blocking 9% of opponents' two-point attempts while he's in the game. This rate equates to almost two blocks per game this year despite limited minutes as her returns from the injury. He averages 7.4/7.0/1.3 on .567/.000/.462 shooting. He is probably the only A-10 center who matches Kenny Frease for size. Last year, Frease went for 11 and 3 on 4-10 shooting against Temple.

Bench:
Temple's bench is relatively thin. They get 23.8% of their minutes from reserves, which is 315th in the nation. That number is affected by Eric's injury, however, so take it with a grain of salt. The man who held down Eric's position in the starting lineup in his absence was 6'9" F/C Anthony Lee. He averages 5.7/6.5/0.3 on .509/.000/.535 shooting. At 210 pounds, the freshman doesn't bring the bulk to the table that Eric does.

At the guard positions, Aaron Brown gets 7.6/2.3/0.7 per game on .460/.400/.630 shooting. He has connected on 32 threes on the year despite only playing 17 minutes per game. Six-foot-three reserve point guard T.J. DiLeo averages 2.6/2.0/1.1 on .579/.375/.556 shooting. His job is to take care of the ball while Fernandez gets a breather and - with an A:TO of 1.8 and a field goal attempt every ten minutes - he does just that.

Three questions:
-Does Xavier have a consistent effort in them?
X came out hot against Memphis but disappeared down the stretch. They were very flat against URI in the first half before turning it on and leaving the Rams in the dust in the second half. Neither of those is going to get it done at Temple on Saturday. Tu Holloway - the focus of a recent feature article from Dana O'Neil at ESPN.com - needs to set the tone for the team like he did last year. If Xavier's leader brings the competitive edge to the floor for all 40 minutes Saturday, expect the team to follow suit and a great game to break out. Any let downs will put the game and the season in serious jeopardy.

-How "back" is Michael Eric? We usually focus on Xavier-related issues in the questions, but this one is extremely pertinent to the game Saturday. Temple's defense is geared towards getting in the faces of perimeter players and funneling play to the eraser in the middle. Michael Eric has been in the starting lineup for Temple, but he's still only getting 17-20 minutes per game. If he's not at his best - or can't sustain it for long periods - Xavier can go inside to Kenny Frease and penetrate into the lane with less fear than would normally be appropriate.

-Can Brad Redford defend any of Temple's guards? Temple starts three guards who each have four inches of height on Redford. Never blessed with great lateral mobility, Redford is even less gifted in that department after his knee surgery. Don't get me wrong, I love his persistent effort on defense, and you never have to wonder if you're getting everything there is out of him on either end. In a game where all his perspective assignments have him beaten for both size and athletic ability, though, you have to wonder how many minutes he'll be able to play without being a liability on the defensive end.

Three keys:
-Mark Lyons.
See everything about Brad Redford up there? The guy who is - ostensibly - the solution to those problems is the King of Upstate, Mark Lyons. Cheeks has been off his game recently, and his effort and/or attitude in practice have apparently not gotten him back into Coach Mack's good graces. Lyons is not significantly taller than Redford, but he was blessed with explosive athletic ability and all the tools required to stay in front of Wyatt, Moore, or Fernandez. X needs Cheeks to tighten up his decision-making on offense and bring serious intensity to the defensive end against the Owls.

-Value the basketball. Neither Xavier nor Temple has an offense that turns the ball over much. Neither team features a defense designed to force turnovers from the other team, either. Playing in a game against an opponent that isn't going to give them a lot of extra possessions, the Musketeers need to be sure to not offer Temple extra chances at the basket by being loose or lazy with the ball. Tough conference road games can be won or lost by virtue of losing the turnover war; Xavier can't afford to be as sloppy against Temple as they were against URI.

-Own the middle. Temple is not a very large team; Lee (6'9") and Eric (6'11") split minutes at the five. Other than that, no player getting meaningful minutes is bigger than Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson's 6'6". Frease, Taylor, Walker, and Robinson all figure to have the height advantage against the Temple player assigned to guard them. Taking advantage of that with second chance points on offense and forcing one-and-dones on defense - not to mention keeping Temple from being offensively effective in the paint - would be a big step in the right direction for Xavier.

Bottom line:
This game is barely better than a do-or-die situation for Xavier. The Muskies can take control of the conference with a win here, but a loss leaves them a game and a half adrift and on the wrong side of the bubble. X does not want to put itself in the position of having to hope other teams on the bubble lose to get the boys in blue back into the field of 68. Despite their tenuous grasp on what might have been this season, Xavier still can control their own destiny thanks to games with Temple and Saint Louis still on the docket. Dropping this game against the Owls Saturday night would all but force Xavier to win the Atlantic Ten tournament. If that doesn't get 40 minutes of end-to-end effort out of Xavier in Philadelphia, you can probably start planning for next year.

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