Xavier v. Wake Forest: Preview

Much like last season, Xavier is sliding into the New Year with four losses in their last five games. Unlike last year, the Muskies don't have suspensions and a general funk from the Crosstown Shootout to blame for that. Xavier has one last non-conference game on the slate before the second season tips off; a loss against Wake Forest tonight means that Xavier will slide into A-10 action with a record just one game over .500. This isn't the tipping point of the season, but I wouldn't be surprised to look back at this game at year's end and see it as a harbinger of what transpired next.

Wake Forest is a young team and, as you would expect, they have seen some ups and downs this year. After knocking off Radford at home and dropping a close one at a neutral site against UConn, the Demon Deacons were dealt a harsh blow in the form of a 26-point whipping at the hands of Iona. Bounce back wins over Mercer and William and Mary were followed by the Deacons' one true bad loss, a home defeat against Nebraska. Richmond and Seton Hall are both hanging on just the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble, and Wake lost to both of them by a combined six points. They come into tonight's game against Xavier off of back-to-back big wins over Furman and UNC-Greensboro.

Team fingerprint:

Since I've already mentioned youth, let's start there. In terms of experience weighted by minutes played, Wake averages less than a year in college per player. Only ten division one teams are more callow than the Demon Deacons. They are tall (88th in effective height), though, so there's that. They also get an exactly average percentage of their minutes from bench players. Wake plays at a pace of almost 69 possessions per game, 93rd-fastest in the nation. One red flag for Wake fans is the team's strength of schedule, which Ken Pomeroy ranks 274th in the country.

Offensively, Wake has some notable high points. They are second in the nation in free throw attempts per field goal attempt, though their efficiency at the line is somewhat marred by their 68.9% success rate once they get there. They are successful from deep (37.3% as a team) but judicious in their use of that ability (271st in the country in 3PA per FGA). A 49.8% mark from inside the arc also puts them in the top 100 in the nation. The possession battle is a weakness for this young squad, as they turn the ball over on 21.2% of their trips down the court and only grab 27.8% of their own misses. These numbers are 200th and 279th in the nation, respectively, and underscore the biggest flaw in the Wake Forest offense at this point.

On the defensive end, things are not as rosy for Wake. They block 12.4% of opponents' two-point attempts, which is 53rd in the country. It's downhill from there, though. Opponents' EFG% is 49.1%, which makes Wake 207th in the nation in that department. The force turnovers at a subpar rate and are right at average on the defensive glass. Interior defense is particularly troublesome for the Demon Deacons, as teams shoot 49.3% from inside the arc against them.

Starters:


The player: 6'3", 195-pound freshman point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre
The numbers: 7.8/2.5/3.0, .438/.400/.889 shooting
More numbers: 2.1 TO per game, 21.9% assist rate, 71.4% available minutes played
The words: Miller-McIntyre is one of a clutch of freshman players getting important minutes for Wake, but he is the one who has earned the most floor time thus far. He has shot the ball fairly efficiently so far this year, as his numbers above will attest, but he has only gotten to the line nine times all season. On a team that ranks 249th in the nation in assists per field goal made, Miller-McIntyre's three assists per game lead the way by a wide margin.


The player: 6'3", 190-pound senior shooting guard C.J. Harris
The numbers: 14.2/1.7/1.9, .516/.419/.808 shooting
More numbers: 20.2% usage rate, 66.3% true shooting percentage, 4.6 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: Harris is the leading scorer for Wake Forest by .1 point per game, but he is far and away their most efficient scorer. He can score off the bounce or with the jumper, has range well beyond the three-point arc, and specializes in getting to the free throw line while staying out of foul trouble himself. Harris shoots 60% from inside the arc and will be a tough guard for whomever draws his number tonight.


The player: 6'7", 220-pound junior forward Travis McKie
The numbers: 14.1/7.9/1.1, .444/.200/.771 shooting
More numbers: 1.5 SPG, 24.4% usage rate, 23% DReb%, 6.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: McKie is the "2" in Wake's 1-2 scoring punch, but he's probably the more complete player of the two. Not only does he rebound like a maniac, but he is active the whole possession on the defensive end. Despite his relatively pedestrian shooting numbers (including a dreadful 5-25 from three-point range), he is so effective in getting to the line that he is still one of the nation's more efficient scorers. Much like Harris, he also has a knack for keeping himself out of trouble on defense, averaging fewer than three fouls per 40 minutes.


The player: 6'9", 240-pound freshman forward Devin Thomas
The numbers: 6.5/5.4/1.4, .441/.000/.556 shooting
More numbers: 23 MPG, 9.5% OReb%, 18.7% DReb%, 5.9% block%
The words: Thomas is not yet a dynamic force on the offensive end of the floor, but he is incredibly active in almost all aspects of the game. He rebounds hard at both ends and is one of the team's most effective shot-blockers. Though he excels at getting himself to the free throw line, he is shooting 20-36 from the stripe so far this season. Like Miller-McIntyre, he has started every game of his freshman season to this point.


The player: 6'9", 230-pound freshman forward Tyler Cavanaugh
The numbers: 6.9/3.2/0.3, .339/.238/.806 shooting
More numbers: 11.5% OReb%, 10.2% DReb%, 5.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: Cavanaugh has only started five games this season, but he has the most starts and the most minutes played of any of the players that has been cycled through the fifth starting position. He is more prolific on the offensive glass than the defensive, which is exceptionally rare. He fills a flex four type role, but - as his shooting numbers demonstrate - he's still working on finding the range at the college level. Like seemingly everyone on this Wake Forest team, he has a knack for getting to the free throw line when he shoots.

Reserves:

Freshman forward Aaron Rountree III only gets 14.3 minutes per game, but he still finds the time to swat away 1.5 shots per game while scoring 4.7 PPG on .630/.444/.563 shooting. You'd do well to think twice before approaching him with a soft shot. Chase Fischer is a 6'3" sophomore guard who earns his free education by shooting 17-34 from deep so far on the season. Freshman guard Madison Jones has an assist rate of 20.8% and - despite standing only 6'1" - manages to block almost a shot per game in addition to the 1.5 steals he provides per contest. Arnuad William Adala Moto is a 6'6" freshman who sees occasional time at the wing and can shoot the ball a little when given a chance to do so.

Three questions:

-How does Xavier manage the pace? Look for this to be a continuing question mark in this section all season. Xavier is better when the game is more open, but they lack the depth and occasionally the decision making skills to run all game. Wake, on the other hand, prefers a fast pace and has the horses to make it happen. Xavier can play at the Demon Deacons' pace for stretches, but it's doubtful that the Muskies can effectively sustain that for 40 minutes. More likely, X is going to have to slow it down from time to time, leading us to...

-How does Xavier score in the half court? The book on Semaj (sit back, make him shoot jumpers, foul him in the paint) is out, meaning Xavier's young guard is going to have to find a way to adjust to the league's adjustments to him. In the meantime, the Muskies need to find a way to look something other than helpless on the offensive end in the half court. Travis Taylor and Justin Martin both have the skills to get it done here, but their production has been inconsistent at best. If both of those guys step up, X can blow out the Demon Deacons. If neither of them do, it's going to be a long night and a long conference season.

-Who guards CJ Harris? Going just by intuitive matchups, it would make sense that Dee would guard Miller-McIntyre, JMart would draw Travis McKie, and Semaj would be left on Harris. That raises a ton of questions, including: is Semaj capable/dedicated enough on the defensive end to guard a top scorer? Does Xavier want Christon - who has a history of cramping - to have to work that hard on defense? What happens if Christon picks up some early fouls? Pulling Davis from the lineup to go big may solve the problem, but that opens up just as many question marks on the offensive end as it takes care of on D. I'll be interested to see how Mack plays this one tonight.

Three keys:

-Keep your hands to yourself. Wake Forest has six players on the roster who are drawing at least 4.6 fouls per game, including four of their starters. Xavier, on the other hand, goes downhill quickly once foul trouble crops up, owing to a short bench. The Muskies' bench players all have their merits, but I don't think anyone wants a repeat of the UC game, which ended with Brad Redford playing point guard while Semaj and Dee looked on from the bench. Xavier's starters have to be disciplined enough not to hack their way to the bench against Wake.

-Win the freebie war. Against a Tennessee defense that excelled in everything except forcing turnovers, Xavier managed to cough the ball up a deplorable 19 times, costing themselves a shot at a nice road win in the process. Wake doesn't force turnovers particularly well, either, and they're far from dominant on the defensive glass. This Xavier offense is simply not good enough to turn down shots at the basket. Giving the team more possessions by holding onto the ball and running down offensive rebounds is imperative for the output of the Muskie offense.

-Erik Stenger. That's right. Not just Erik Stenger the man, but Erik Stenger the idea. Xavier's front line is once again going to be outweighed by an opponent dedicated to getting to the boards. Taylor and Martin have both flashed the ability to grab rebounds out of their areas, and Taylor in particular has a motor that doesn't quit, but Erik Stenger has been the poster child for the kind of hustle that leaves layers of skin on the hardwood everywhere he goes. Getting that kind of scrappiness out of the whole team will go a long way towards uglying this game up enough for Xavier to win.

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