I have to admit, it has been a long time since I have been less invested in a single game for Xavier. While the February game against a non-conference opponent usually affords Xavier a final chance to burnish an already meaningful at-large resume, this year it serves as a reminder of what this season may have been before the summer turned everything on its head. X is coming off a gutting loss to VCU that surely ended the team's hopes of pulling in an at-large bid. The remaining path to the NCAA tournament is through the A-10's automatic bid, and tonight's game against Memphis has absolutely no impact on the Muskies' pursuit of that goal.
Memphis, on the other hand, hasn't lost since your Christmas party at work (approximately). Since dropping a home game against Louisville to fall to 6-3 on December 15th, the Tigers have ripped off 18 consecutive wins and are currently atop Conference USA at a perfect 13-0 in the league. It should be noted that the slate of games faced by Memphis in that time has not been all that difficult. Their best wins have come over Southern Miss (twice) and Tennessee. They obviously haven't lost any games during their winning streak, but home wins by 6 over Lipscomb and a single point over Marshall aren't striking fear into the hearts of future opponents.
The most informative part of Memphis as a whole is their strength of schedule. KenPom rates it as 182nd toughest in the nation, which is pretty poor. The level of competition they have faced colors the perception of the numbers they have put up in that span. The Tigers get 31% of their minutes from the bench, which is basically national average. They also come in right at the average in height and effective height. Their pace is faster than Xavier's, which is basically a given, but is also faster than all but 37 teams in the entire country. Their 69.7 possession per game pace is a dead sprint compared to that of the Muskies.
On offense, the team's only weakness is their propensity to turn the ball over at every opportunity. They cough it up on 21.3% of their possessions, which is 240th in the nation. Their EFG% of 53.1% (26th in the country) is bolstered both by their 36.2% mark from deep (66th) and their 52.6% success rate on shots from inside the arc (22nd). Despite their efficiency from beyond the arc, they take only 27.5% of their shots from there. In the relatively rare event that they do miss, their 37.4% OReb% is 28th in the country. They are also elite at getting to the line, though their 68.8% from the stripe is fairly pedestrian.
Defensively, the Tigers are fairly menacing inside the arc. Teams connect on only 42.4% of their two-point attempts against Memphis, an issue no doubt compounded by Memphis' blocking 16.9% of opponents' shots from that range; only three teams in the nation better that mark. While teams do shoot 34.5% from long range, Memphis is in the top 100 in not allowing shots from there in the first place. Finally, they force turnovers on 22.7% of possessions against them (47th), including steals on 13% of opponent possessions (17th).
The player: 6'1", 171 pound junior guard Joe Jackson
The numbers: 13.8/3.1/4.7 on .539/.492/.758 shooting
More numbers: 1.7 steals per game, 27.8% assist rate, 64.8% true shooting percentage
The words: Jackson can flat-out fill it up from all over the court, as that true shooting percentage number (18th in the country) attests. He is effective in getting to the line and converting from there, and he is also adept at finding his teammates in positions to score. To top it all off, he also plays aggressive defense both on the ball and in the passing lanes. Whoever draws Jackson is in for a dogfight on both ends of the floor all night.
The player: 6'3", 197 pound junior guard Geron Johnson
The numbers: 10.7/4.5/3.3 on .463/.341/.737 shooting
More numbers: 1.8 steals per game, 23.1% assist rate, 27 minutes per game
The words: A former top recruit with no small number of questions hanging around his character when Coach Josh Pastner brought him in this year, Johnson has more or less rewarded the faith of his new coach. Like Jackson, he is an adept combo guard who can get all manner of buckets or find a teammate at need. He is also a tough defender, giving Memphis a top-notch backcourt when both starters occupy the floor together.
The player: 6'5", 188 pound senior forward D.J. Stephens
The numbers: 7.3/6.8/0.7 on .693/.364/.714 shooting
More numbers: 10.7 OReb%, 23% DReb%, 15.2% TO rate, 10.8% block%, 12.4% usage rate
The words: Quick, who is the most efficient offensive player in the nation? If I weren't writing this in D.J. Stephens' section, you might be tempted to guess Cody Zeller or Mason Plumlee or Mark Lyons (just kidding). It's Stephens, as I'm sure you've surmised. He rarely turns the ball over, shoots a respectable 8-22 from beyond the arc, and is a staggering 71-92 from inside it. The only reason he doesn't lead the country in true shooting percentage is his relative dearth of shot attempts. If I had missed less than one two-point shot per game on the year, I'd be lifting like there was no tomorrow. Instead, Stephens just rebounds and turns away shots at rates that make you double-check that you've gotten his height right. Yep, he's only 6'5", but he recorded a 43" vertical in high school and can do this. Last year against Xavier, he put down a fairly impressive dunk as well.
The player: 6'7", 240 pound sophomore forward Adonis Thomas
The numbers: 11.8/4.5/1.7 on .413/.273/.756 shooting
More numbers: 2.8% block%, 288 field goal attempts
The words: Thomas is one of those guys who came into college with draft stock, but his performance as an undergrad has been less than overwhelming. He doesn't use his bulk to good effect, posting pedestrian rebounding numbers and shooting only 45.5% from inside the arc while leading the team in field goal attempts. He has the tools to be a problem for Xavier's forwards; the question will be how well he can deploy them.
The player: 6'9", 246 pound freshman forward Shaq Goodwin
The numbers: 8.4/4.9/1.5 on .500/.000/.646 shooting
More numbers: 1.3 steals per game, 1.2 blocks per game, 12.3% OReb%
The words: Shaq Goodwin, on the other hand, does get in the middle and throw his weight around. He has attempted only two threes on the year and missed them both. He is unusually proficient at stealing the ball for a big man, ranking in the top 200 in the entire nation in steal%. Throw in his blocks and you have a very effective defender who also does the dirty work on the offensive glass.
Junior forward is another high-BMI (6'9", 262) big man for Memphis; he hits the offensive glass equally as well as Goodwin on his way to 8.8 and 4.5 per game in 19.4 minutes. He has started from time to time during his career as a Tiger - including for a stretch earlier this year - but is currently coming off the pine. Six-foot-four junior guard Chris Crawford is a gunner off the bench, shooting .389/.342/.838 on his way to 8.3 and 4.0 with 1.4 steals per game. Junior guard Antonio Barton had been getting good minutes as well, but he is currently sidelined with a foot injury.
-Can Dee go? More to the point: should Dee be risked? Concussions - as Justin Martin can attest - can linger in a player's performance long after the actual event occurred. Dee's presence on the floor would obviously help Xavier's chances of winning this game, but that must be weighed against the risk of exacerbating the issue for future, more pivotal contests. Unless Davis is absolutely 100% with no lingering symptoms, I'd just as soon Coach Mack gave him the night off to continue trying to collect himself for the stretch run.
-How will Semaj bounce back? It was against the best turnover-forcing defense in the country, and he was marooned as a freshman without his usual partner in ball-handling, but no guard likes to put up as many turnovers as Semaj Christon did against VCU. One of the things Coach Mack has noted about Christon is that he has a tendency to take his mistakes to heart to the point that it sometimes affects his ability to move forward with the next play. Tonight's game will be a test of how well he has learned his lessons from VCU without allowing them to drag him down.
-Whither Travis Taylor? Taylor was once again a force on the boards last time out, but he was less than effective during his few chances to score from the post. If X wants to go anywhere in March, the team needs to be firing on all cylinders. The style of the game may have been a factor in his performance Saturday, but he will be facing a no less daunting task against Memphis' girthy big men and the constant menace of D.J. Stephens sweeping in from the weak side. Hopefully VCU was just a blip in Taylor's otherwise impeccable form as a senior.
-Win the glass. The Muskies allowed too many second chances against the Rams, and those extra possessions eventually wore out the Xavier defense and turned into decisive points for VCU. Memphis hits the offensive glass very well as a team; it would behoove Xavier to kill possessions with defensive rebounds if they want to avoid the same late-game fatigue that dragged them down in Saturday's defeat.
-Clutch the pumpkin. They're not in the top tier in turnovers forced, but Memphis is also no slouch in that department. They especially excel in live-ball turnovers, which often lead to quick points going the other way. It's incumbent on Semaj to be ready to move the ball rather than over-dribbling, and his teammates need to be ready to give him options for doing so. Especially if Dee is out - and I'm currently not counting on his being ready to go - the entire team is going to have to contribute to ball security.
-Attack as a team. Perhaps the most vexing thing about this team this season has been Xavier's appalling offensive droughts. The Muskies have a tendency to stagnate in the half court while waiting for Semaj to do something awesome. Justin Martin, Isaiah Philmore, and even Jeff Robinson have shown the ability to use a bounce or two to get a good shot but also a propensity for lapsing into maddening stretches of passive play. If any of those guys gets an opening, they have to be ready and willing to be aggressive in their pursuit of scoring opportunities.