"When you see yourself on ESPN on the bubble, I think every game is important from here on." That was Tu Holloway talking to Steve Wolf after the game against UD on Saturday, and he hit the nail directly on the head. The season is down to brass tacks, and Xavier's final four games will dictate how comfortable the team feels on its way into the conference tournament. A loss to anyone other than Saint Louis would be borderline fatal to the Musketeers' hopes for an at large bid. Coming off the huge win against UD at home, Xavier faces a quick turn around for Tuesday's pivotal game at Massachusetts.
The Minutemen come into the game in the midst of their own season-defining five-game stretch. Massachusetts still has aspirations of making the NCAA tournament, but they've taken a couple of huge hits from consecutive losses against St. Joseph's and La Salle, the last in heartbreaking fashion at home. Their non-conference schedule allowed them a record of 12-3, but it was only the 300th toughest schedule in the nation. The only two opponents of any consequence were Florida State and Miami (FL), and both of those teams knocked off UMass without too much to-do. Wins against St. Joseph's and Saint Louis are the only feathers in the Minutemen's collective cap. A home loss to the Musketeers on Tuesday would leave Massachusetts dead and buried in terms of winning an at-large bid and probably end their chances of winning a first-round bye in the Atlantic Ten tournament. There is a ton at stake for both teams in this contest, a fact which will surely not be lost on the players involved.
If Coach Mack is serious about wanting Xavier to play faster for the duration of the season - and I have no reason to believe that he isn't - UMass is the perfect opponent for the new look Muskies. UMass gets up and down the floor like they would have preferred to go out for track; only one team in the nation plays at a higher tempo than their 75 possessions per game. They also get to the offensive glass well, grabbing boards on almost 35% of their own misses. Turnovers are an occupational hazard of running up and down the floor, and Massachusetts obliges on about 21% of their possessions. They're a good shooting team from inside the arc (49.2%) and a bad one from the line (66.9%) and from deep (33.7%). Of a bigger concern to Xavier is the rate at which a team chucks from beyond the arc, and UMass takes more than 36% of their shot attempts from the land of plenty. That's in the top 100 in the country and - considering Xavier's season-long struggle to shut down the perimeter - leaves the Muskies susceptible to a Minutemen hot streak from deep. Color me concerned.
Defensively, UMass puts a ton of pressure on the ball. They force turnovers on 23% of their opponents' possessions, which is good for 50th in the nation. UMass opponents' EFG% is 45%, and they only allow 29% shooting from behind the arc. They also block 13% of opponents' two-point shots (31st) and force steals on 12% of opponents' possessions (22nd); in fact, there's not a whole lot that they don't do well defensively. They are slightly below average in defending the glass, giving up boards on 33% of opponents' misses. They also allow teams to take about 35% of their field goal attempts from behind the arc. Neither of these weaknesses come in an area of particular strength for Xavier.
The point guard for the Minutemen is Chaz Williams, who is what basketball insiders refer to as "just a little fella." At 5'9", 175, he's one of the few players in the Atlantic Ten - or the world - that can make Dee Davis feel tall. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for his diminutive stature, Williams shoots. A lot. He gets 15.5/4.0/6.2 with 2.1 steals per game on .393/.361/.771 shooting. He does do a good job of getting to the free throw line, having attempted 144 on the season. Despite that, he's still a pretty inefficient shooter to be taking 24% of the team's shots while he's on the floor. He also assists 34.8% of the team's buckets while he's on the court; Williams spends a ton of time with the ball in his hands.
Williams' back court mate Jesse Morgan is on the other end of the guard size spectrum at 6'5", 190. Sadly for fans of the team, he is just about the same in terms of offensive efficiency. Vinson puts up 9.5/2.5/2.5 on .397/.371/.739 shooting. He also throws in 1.4 steals per game for good measure. Having a back court comprised of people who both shoot under 40% from the floor is not a recipe for success or offensive efficiency. Morgan doesn't have Williams' knack for getting to the free throw line, which accounts for his difficulty putting up points.
Terrell Vinson is a 6'7", 220 pound forward who plays the three for the Minutemen. The junior gets 9.2/5.4/1.1 on .421/.306/.679 shooting. Vinson is a pretty nondescript player. He seems to think he's got business shooting threes, as he's attempted 72 of them on the year. He doesn't, because he's only made 22. He does keep good care of the ball, with a turnover rate of 14.6%. The fact that he has started 25 of UMass's 26 games is not a ringing endorsement of the state of the program.
Raphiael Putney stands 6'9, 185, which means he weighs about as much as Big Kenny's left leg. Putney puts up 10.2/5.7/1.4 on .483/.374/.630 shooting. The sophomore is a bundle of athleticism, getting up and down the court with aplomb and blocking 1.5 shots per game. More troublingly, he fits the profile of the stretch four that has been ravaging Xavier's defense this season. He has hit 37 of the 99 threes he has taken on the year. If he manages to get free on the perimeter against Xavier's oft-maligned high ball screen defense, it could be a long night for the Muskies.
Holding down the middle of the floor for Massachusetts is 6'9", 245 pound center Sean Carter. A little cursory googling reveals he is not the New Jersey-based rap mogul who goes by the stage name "Jay-Z." Sorry to disappoint. The senior averages 7.6/6.3/0.9 on .645/.000/.514 shooting and is something less than the focal point of the offense. He only takes about 11% of the team's shots while he's on the floor. He does block a shot per game; much of his value is tied up in his ability to hold things down in the middle on the defensive end.
UMass gets about a third of their minutes off the bench, which is a little more than national average. Six-foot-five guard Freddie Riley comes off the bench and manages to average almost 8 shots in 18 minutes of playing time per game. That translates to 7.4 points thanks to his .345/.317/.500 shooting line; it should also be mentioned that Riley has fired 142 threes this year despite his barely mediocre success rate.. Freshman big man Cady Lalanne was getting 6.7 and 5.6 and blocking 1.5 shots per game, but he's out for the season with a foot injury. Wing Javorn Farrell averages 6.0/2.6/2.4 on .366/.283/.745 shooting in 21 minutes per game off the pine. At 6'5", he brings a little size to the two or some speed to the three.
-Can Xavier handle the pace? Coach Mack mentioned post-game that the team was flagging a bit towards the end of the second half against UD owing to their renewed commitment to pushing the pace. Foul trouble thinned the Xavier bench a little bit, but the team still needs to be able to get out and go for 40 minutes if the strategy requires it. Massachusetts is as committed to running the floor as almost any team in the nation. If the Musketeers want to knock off UMass at their home court - where the Minutemen are 5-1 in conference this season - they're going to have to be able to withstand the track meet pace for the entirety of the game.
-How will Xavier defend the perimeter? UMass isn't a great shooting team from deep, but their top three shooters combine to post a .369 three-point percentage. Those three are the starting back court and the starting four, which are three positions that can give Xavier trouble on the rotation from the high ball screen. The Musketeers need to make some adjustments on perimeter defense, or they run the risk of getting bombed out of the gym, especially considering how often Massachusetts likes to shoot from deep.
-Can one of Xavier's bigs please finish around the rim? The Musketeers have a guard-oriented offense, which is not a problem in and of itself. What is a problem is that the guards don't seem 100% comfortable laying off inside to the big men, which probably stems directly from the fact that the Musketeers' big men have trouble catching the ball and even more trouble putting it through the bucket at point-blank range. X can't count on 32 points from the irrepressible Tu Holloway on a nightly basis. Someone in the middle needs to start showing up.
-Dezmine Wells. This game figures to be a track meet, which plays right into Wells' wheelhouse. The Minutemen don't have anyone in the starting lineup who can match Wells' combination of size and pace; he's got 30 pounds on anyone his height and is quicker laterally than Terrell Vinson. Dez can be a remarkably efficient scorer in the open court, and Xavier would be well served to get him going early in the game. If Xavier wants to deal UMass their second home loss on the year, Wells' contribution is going to be vital.
-Don't allow the big run. Against Dayton, Xavier gave up runs of 15-2 and 10-0 in the first half alone. Against a team that is clinging to the bubble at its home court, X can't give UMass the chance to get the building rocking and run the Musketeers out of the game. The Minutemen can put up bushels of points in a hurry by increasing the pace and crashing the glass, but it really begins on the defensive end for UMass. Keeping hold of the ball and getting good shots rather than turning it over and giving UMass a chance to run out will be vital for Xavier Tuesday.
-40 minutes of high intensity. Xavier came out gangbusters against Dayton, but things fell off after the first media timeout and again at the end of the half. Simply put, this Xavier team is not good enough to take minutes or even possessions off right now. It's also not good enough to give away free throws on technical fouls or leave points at the line, but that's beside the point. When the Muskies pin their ears back and go for it like the teams Xavier fans are accustomed to supporting, they can give just about anybody a run for their money. They're going to need to bring that Tuesday night.
This is a game Xavier can ill afford to lose. Tu was right to approach every game as an elimination game at this point, because the Muskies' margin for error is gone. This team has the talent to put together stretches of really good basketball, but time is running out for everything to fall into place. Xavier is on a stretch run that will define this year. The signs that they are rounding into form just in time to sneak into the tournament hot are starting to appear; this team is ready to get on another roll. To make it mean anything, they're going to have to get through a tough Massachusetts squad playing at a borderline unassailable home court on Tuesday.