It is often reported that Bill Belichick says "each win makes the next game a little bigger." While I don't spend enough time around Mr. Belichick to have any idea if he actually says that, that quote certainly applies to Xavier right now, as the Muskies are staring down a stretch run that features one massive fixture after another. For those wins to mean anything, though, X has to win at Rhode Island today. A loss at URI buries the team's chances at an at-large bid and leaves their hopes of grabbing a first-round bye in the conference tournament on life support. This game is the closest thing you can find to a must-win this side of the actual postseason.
Rhode Island, by contrast, is playing out the string on the season at this point. Even if you ignore the fact that they dropped their first five games, URI has lost nearly 2 out of every 3 contests on their way to an 8-16 (3-8) record. Their banner win is somehow pilfering a two-point victory at Saint Lou in overtime; other than that, they have lost to every noteworthy team they have played. A six-game losing streak in conference directly following the Saint Louis win drained any momentum they may have taken from that game. They come into today's game against Xavier riding a modest two-game winning streak thanks to wins over Dayton and Duquesne.
Rhode Island is actually not bad at protecting the ball on offense, with a TO rate of 19.6% putting them just a hair better than the national average. Sadly, it's all bad news from there for the Rams. They have 11.2% of their two-point shots rejected, which is a fairly amazing clip. Their EFG% of 46.7% puts them 256th in the nation and hints at the struggles they have putting the ball in the basket from inside (45.2%, 267th) or beyond the arc (32.8%, 213th). They're also bad on the offensive boards, ranking 255th in the country by grabbing only 29.5% of their own misses.
The Rams' defense is perplexingly inefficient, given how well they force bad shots. Teams' EFG% against them is 47.7%, which is 145th in the nation. They also block a very impressive 12.2% (55th) of opponents' two-point attempts and hold teams to just 32.6% from beyond the arc. Things start to fall apart, though, when it comes to denying teams free possessions. The Rams force turnovers on only 19.7% of opponents' trips down the floor (206th) and come in at 317th in the nation by allowing an OReb% of 36.1%. The defense itself isn't too bad, but they simply give other teams too many shots at attacking to be successful on the defensive end.
Perhaps surprisingly for a team that is so bad on the glass, the Rams are actually .6" above the national average in effective height. They are thin, getting only 25.5% of their minutes off the bench (296th), but they do sport a slightly higher level of experience than the average team. Much like Xavier, Rhode Island loves a slow pace, averaging just 63.2 possessions per game.
The player: 6'2", 180 pound junior guard Xavier Munford
The numbers: 17.4/2.9/2.2 on .391/.323/.748 shooting
More numbers: 29.6% usage rate, 35.3 minutes per game, averaging 9.4 second-half points
The words: Rhode Island's offense rises and falls on the back of Mumford's scoring, but he's not really all that efficient in scoring the ball. His 45.1% shooting inside the arc is below the national average, and his 53-164 from deep is downright bad. He's actually one of the more inefficient offensive players on the team, but he continues to have carte blanche to pull just about whenever he wants to.
The player: 5'11", 175 pound sophomore guard Mike Powell
The numbers: 9.8/2.8/3.6 on .316/.329/.750 shooting
More numbers: 36.6 minutes per game, 22.1% assist rate, 2.7 TO per game
The words: I did a legit double-take on Powell's shooting line. His 28-85 from beyond the arc is bad, but his 40-130 (30.8%) from two-point range is downright deplorable. That's almost morally offensive. He leads the team in assists, but his A/TO is just over 1 thanks to his inability to avoid passing to the wrong team. His 2.7 TO and 6.1 missed shots per game add up to a lot of empty trips down the floor for a team that only averages 63 possessions per game.
The player: 6'6", 210 pound senior forward Andre Malone
The numbers: 10.0/4.0/1.1 on .410/.321/.795 shooting
More numbers: 17.3% usage rate, 32.1 minutes per game, 11.9% TO rate
The words: Malone is far and away the most efficient player on this Rhode Island team, which is a nice feather in his cap but not necessarily a great commentary on the status of the team at large. Despite his relatively poor three-point percentage, he, too, is one of four Rams averaging more than three long-range attempts per game. His 50.5% from inside the arc is no great shakes, but it places him head and shoulders above most of his teammates.
The player: 6'7", 200 pound senior forward Nikola Malesevic
The numbers: 10.9/5.1/2.1 on .391/.349/.670 shooting
More numbers: 24% usage rate, 14.6% DReb%, 29-83 from three-point range
The words: Malesevic is the kind of stretch four that teams used to devastating effect against Xavier last year, and he is the most dangerous three-point shooter on URI again this season. His rebounding numbers are decent but not spectacular, as he prefers to spend his time floating around mid-range and the arc rather than banging bodies inside.
The player: 6'10", 205 freshman center Jordan Hare
The numbers: 5.7/4.1/0.4 on .600/.000/.447 shooting
More numbers: 20.4 minutes per game, 9.3% OReb%, 10.8% block%
The words: Hare was not the starting center when the season began, but he stepped into that role early on and hasn't really looked back. He is an effective but not prolific scorer (57-95 from inside the arc) and a horrible shooter (31 of his 57 made baskets are dunks), but his real value is on the defensive end. Despite playing only 20.4 minutes per game, he is averaging 2 blocks. He turns away nearly 11% of opponents' two-point attempts when he's on the floor, a number bettered by only 22 players in the country. It will be interesting to see how Xavier attacks Hare on the offensive end.
Mike Aaman is a 6'8" freshman forward who spells the bigs from time to time. He's a great rebounder (11.3% OReb%, 17.9% DReb%) but a fairly limited offensive player. He averages 3.9 and 3.4 in his 13.5 minutes. TJ Buchanan is a 6'3" guard who is 8-18 from beyond the arc and doesn't do a whole lot else of note. Finally, 6'8", 220 pound senior Ryan Brooks also gets after it on the glass (9.5% OReb%, 19.5% DReb%) but shoots just .455/.000/.438.
-Can Xavier show up on the road? The Musketeers have really let themselves down with road losses in the conference this season, and URI is another game that could trip up the team. Without the home crowd behind them, it's imperative that Xavier establishes themselves early in the game and then continues to play well through the entire contest. The vital stretch of games at the Cintas Center late in the year won't really mean much if X can't start performing consistently away from the friendly confines. There are no home games in the postseason, unless you end up in one of the lesser tournaments.
-Will the Muskies feed the post? We spilled a good deal of virtual ink in the wake of the disaster at Dayton regarding the team's inability or unwillingness to adjust to the ineffectiveness of the guards and get the ball inside. URI blocks a lot of shots, but their interior defense is still weak overall. If Semaj and Dee are misfiring again - and even if they aren't - it would behoove X to initiate the offense from the inside out.
-Who wants to lead? When things started to go off the rails against Dayton, nobody on the floor stepped up to really take the team by the reins and try to circle the wagons. We discussed in our Sunday Conversation how this team is missing vocal leadership from the players - Semaj is probably the best player, but quite by nature and a freshman, Dee's leadership is often in direct proportion to how well he's playing, et cetera - but if things start to go sideways at URI, it may well be imperative for this season to have someone huddle up his teammates and get them all back on page.
-Check the shooters. Xavier has a reasonable three-point percentage defense, and Rhode Island is not a very good three-point shooting team in terms of percentage. All it takes is for the Rams to catch an improbable hot streak from deep, though, and Xavier is in big trouble both in the game and the season. URI loves to shoot tons of three-pointers, and it behooves Xavier to challenge every last one of them. Allowing an opponent like Rhode Island to shoot freely from deep is a lot like letting them play the lottery; it will pan out in your favor most of the time, but all it takes is their catching the improbable jackpot to bury the game.
-Dominate the boards. Even with their recent struggles, one place where Xavier is still the cream of the A-10 crop is on the glass. Taylor and Robinson are both very good at both ends of the floor, Martin is a great defensive rebounder for a three, and Isaiah Philmore is just outside the top 100 in the nation in OReb%. On top of all of that, Rhode Island is a fairly poor rebounding team. Rebounding often comes down to a consistent focus and effort; Xavier needs to bring both of those things from the word go. An advantage on the glass will translate into points against a decent URI defense, and Xavier should be dominant in that regard.
-Move the basketball. One of the most frustrating things about this year's team has been the tendency to go into hideous scoring slumps on the offensive end. While it's not always the case, these usually grow out of stagnation in the form of too few ball reversals, too little off the ball movement, and eventually one player trying to force his way through a defense that is set up and waiting for him. Easy looks come from forcing the defense to move; if Xavier can get their assist rate up in the 55-60% range, that will likely be a sign that the offense is flowing a bit better.