On its conference off day a year ago, Xavier was storming through the A-10 but in desperate need of an out-of-conference win to solidify the ol' March resume. That team took on a tough SEC opponent on the road and took care of business. A year later, Xavier is staggering through the Atlantic Ten and in no lesser need for a signature victory in the new year to restore the expected order. Xavier again travels to SEC county, but this time will be stopping off to visit Conference USA powerhouse Memphis.
Despite a modest 15-7 record, the Tigers are actually a very good team. Other than a one-point setback on the road to Central Florida in conference, their losses have come to undefeated Murray State and five teams in Ken Pomeroy's top 50. They took Georgetown to overtime back in November and lost an 86-possession track meet to Louisville on the road. They are 6-2 in conference, but the two conference teams to beat them have held the pace of the game down to 63 and 62 possessions (which Xavier can do) and converted 36 of 44 from the free throw line (81.8%; Xavier may struggle there).
Memphis plays a smothering man defense. they don't force turnovers very often at all (19.3% of possessions, 244th in the country), but they make up for that by choking out the opponents' shot selection. Teams are shooting a meager 31.3% from deep against Memphis (50th in the country), which is great but pales in comparison to the Tigers' interior defense. They only allow opponents to shoot 41.6% from inside the arc (9th nationally) and turn away 15.9% of opponents' two-point shots (7th). Statistically, there's no future in trying to get buckets in the middle against Memphis.
Despite their interior defensive prowess, the Tigers are actually a very poor rebounding team. They allow an offensive rebound percentage of 33.2%, which is not defending your own glass very well. They also only grab 31% of their own misses, which sets them around 200th in the country. That's also nothing to write home about. Their best rebounder is 6'6" guard Will Barton, whom we'll discuss at length momentarily.
The Tigers have an elite offensive attack. Their adjusted efficiency of 111.7 points per 100 possessions is 28th in the nation, and their EFG% of 53.6% is 32nd. Despite hitting a very good 37.7% of their three-point attempts, the Tigers only take 25.6% of their shots from behind the arc, a rate that is in the lowest 25 in the nation. Instead, they pound the paint on offense by having their guards attack off the bounce and their bigs occasionally post up. They shoot 52.5% from inside the arc (33rd in the nation), are 74th in the country in FTA per FGA and connect on 71.1% of their free throw attempts.
The conversation regarding Memphis has to begin with sophomore wing Will Barton. Barton puts up 18.6/8.5/2.6 per game on a sterling shooting line of .510/.338/.723. Barton is not a great outside shooter but, at 6'6", 175, he is capable of using his explosive athleticism and willowy length to get into the lane and score. He also goes to the glass like a demon, grabbing almost three offensive boards per game. To top it all off, he also adds 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks every time out. Xavier is not likely to play a more talented guard this season, and putting the brakes on Barton's mercurial scoring ability is going to be a top priority for Xavier's defense on Saturday.
Will's younger brother Antonio has stepped into the starting lineup since just before the turn of the year, and he's not making anyone forget who got the short end of the genetic stick. He is the team's best three-point shooter at 21-52 from deep, and he gets his 7.4/2.4/1.7 on .440/.404/.706 shooting. He also turns the ball over 1.4 times per game. The younger Barton doesn't bring a lot to the table other than scoring, but he does so fairly efficiently in the 23 minutes per game he is afforded.
The team's primary ball-handling duties fall to 6'4" guard Chris Crawford, who averages 9.1/3.0/3.6 on .440/.392/.800 shooting. Crawford also picks up 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. His A:TO is 1.6 on the year, and his shooting line attests to the fact that he's a more than serviceable shooter. Any team would be happy to have the ball in Crawford's hands to initiate the offense, and his length and athletic ability make him a borderline elite defender. His size against Xavier's smaller guards will be a difficult matchup.
Closer to the bucket, things get a little more dodgy for the Tigers, but only just. Super freshman Adonis Thomas was getting 9.7 and 3.6 swinging between the 3 and 4, but surgery on his left ankle ended his season. Six-foot-eight junior Ferrakohn Hall starts at the four because someone has to. He plays about 18 minutes per game and puts up 3.8/3.5/0.4 on .535/.000/.500. With a usage rate of 13%, it's fair to say that Hall is not a big part of Memphis' plans on the offensive end.
Tarik Black is hardly a feature of the offense with a usage rate of 17.3%, but he puts it to better use with averages of 9.5/4.7/0.1 on .648/.000/.598 shooting. He's apparently something of a black hole (nyuck nyuck nyuck) on offense, with three assists on the season. His EFG% of 64.8% is 17th in the nation, and he is effective at getting to the line (87 FTA/122 FTA) if not necessarily converting. He does work on the offensive boards, pulling down about ten percent of his team's misses when he's on the floor. Black is called for 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes of playing time, so look for him to spend some time on the bench and Xavier's bigs to spend some time on the line.
Memphis gets a third of their minutes from players who don't start the game, a mark that puts them just outside the top 100 in the nation. Without Thomas, their bench is deep in minutes, but it gets those from just two players. Guard Joe Jackson gets starter's minutes (24.3 per game) off the bench and responds with 10.2/2.0/3.2 on .436/.382/.845. He provides serviceable options at the one or two for Coach Josh Pastner, but, at 6'1", sacrifices a little bit of defensive length in the process.
Six-foot-nine wing Wesley Witherspoon has no such problem. He averages 5.9/3.5/1.1 with 1.1 steal per game and shoots .405/.355/.691. Despite his height, he is a mediocre rebounder at best, perhaps owing to the fact that he only weights 207 pounds. He averaged 12.5 PPG as a sophomore but has gotten lost in the shuffle for Memphis the past two seasons. Charles Carmouche, a senior guard, has been sidelined with knee pain since the middle of January and doesn't look to factor in Saturday's game. Nobody else averages double-digit minutes off the bench for the Tigers.
-Will the real Mark Lyons please stand (back) up? Bad performances from the King of Upstate have turned Xavier back into the Tu Holloway Show the last couple of times the Muskies have played. While Holloway has demonstrated time and again that he is capable of dragging three walk-ons and a ball boy past most Atlantic Ten teams, Memphis is well stocked with athletic guards who were highly rated out of high school and are doing rather well for themselves in college. Xavier needs to be hitting on all cylinders to have a shot at going into Memphis and stealing a win, and Cheeks is the second-biggest cylinder the Muskies have.
-Who does Xavier throw at Will Barton? At 6'6" and lightning quick, Barton presents a matchup nightmare for the Muskies. There's no way that the likes of Andre Walker, Jeff Robinson, and Travis Taylor possess the lateral mobility to contain him. Justin Martin is the closest match Xavier has for him in terms of size, but I'll bet you snorted derisively at the thought as soon as you read Martin's name. Tu and Cheeks have the quickness and mental fortitude, but a five- or six-inch height disparity is kind of a big deal in basketball. That leaves freshman Dez Wells, who gives up a couple of inches but has athleticism and strength to combat that problem. The bottom line is that there is no good matchup for Barton on the Xavier squad, but someone is going to be tasked with containing him. The rest of the team needs to be ready to help out.
-Can Xavier beat a team with big guards? Tu Holloway is listed at 6'0", but that's probably generous. Mark Lyons is 6'1" in the programs but isn't appreciably taller than Tu. Teams with the length to cut off Holloway's driving lanes - especially off of the high screen - have been successful in grinding Xavier's offense to a complete stagnation. Memphis has that kind of size and plays very good defense. Tu is going to have to be at his best - and get a healthy dose of help from his teammates - for Xavier to break through the Tigers' defense and keep themselves in this game.
-Force the ball inside. Despite Memphis' vaunted interior defense, they don't have anyone the size of Kenny Frease. I know you've heard that one before, but I think Big Kenny can make an impact on this game. Tarik Black picks up fouls like 100 of them will give him an extra life, and a big in foul trouble can be a serious problem for a team with an effective height of -0.1". Black is a top 100 level shot blocker; removing him from the middle of the floor could really open things up for Xavier's offense.
-Dominate the glass. As noted above, Memphis is not a very good rebounding team. Xavier is about average on the offensive end and very good on the defensive boards. Those hustle points are going to be huge for X at Memphis. The Tigers have the length outside to make for some very tough sledding for Xavier's perimeter attack, but stick backs count just the same as any other bucket and have a tendency to deflate the defense that just forced a stop. On the defensive end, there's no excuse for Xavier to get man-handled in the painted area and give up any second-chance points. Hold the explosive Memphis offense to one-and-done and making them earn every point will be pivotal to Xavier's defensive efforts Saturday.
-Dezmine Wells. With Memphis' starting guard trio going 6'4", 6'2", 6'6" and combining for 3.6 steals and 2 blocks per game, this is going to be a game that does not favor the skill set of Brad Redford. Redford is 11-29 (48.2%) from deep in games played in the year 2012 and has flashed some secondary offensive skills that have kept defenses honest, but what Coach Mack referred to as "certain genetic limitations" are going to make his continued presence on the floor a potential defensive liability for Xavier against Memphis. Redford's range is a game-breaking asset that can change the flow of a contest; Dezmine Wells is going to have to find a way to leverage his not-inconsiderable talents into a similar boost for Xavier.
The latest s-curves have Xavier lingering somewhere in the 10-seed to 12-seed range, which is not a safe place to be in early February. Memphis is a little higher up but probably isn't feeling that much more comfortable about their potential entry into the NCAA tournament. Both of these teams came into the year with high hopes, and both are now looking for one more good victory to give them momentum for the stretch run. It's never easy to win on the road against a talented team, and it's even more difficult to do so against on that has the motivation of questionable tournament status. Both of these teams are in a position that borders on must-win for this game. Xavier hasn't shown the offensive firepower lately that would be required to score with Memphis, but if X can keep this a low-scoring affair and take care of the little things in a way that they haven't done consistently since December, they may just be able to leave Tennessee with a huge win.