It has been a long, strange season for Xavier, but the stretch run is in sight now. With the ship having sailed on reasonable chances of an at-large bid or a first-round bye in the conference tournament, the Muskies now are playing to cement their position in the top half of the team that will have to play in the first round of the conference tournament. X and UMass are currently tied for 6th in the league at 8-6, a game behind Butler and Temple. St. Joseph's, Richmond, and St. Bonaventure are all sitting at 7-7, and Dayton, GW, and Charlotte round out the group that still have a chance to make Brooklyn at 6-8. It is theoretically still possible that Xavier could pinch a bye, but they should be more concerned with making sure a date with Butler, Temple, or UMass isn't waiting for them in the first round.
Saint Louis, on the other hand, is the cream of the A-10 crop. After a 3-3 start that saw them lose to Santa Clara, Kansas, and Washington, the Billikens are on a scalding 20-2 run. Only back-to-back losses to Temple and (inexplicably) URI early in the conference schedule mar their record since the calendar turned from November. They haven't all been tough opponents for Saint Lou, but they held a New Mexico team that is in the one-seed conversation to 46 points, beat Butler twice, and scored 76 points in 56 possessions against Virginia Commonwealth. This is a team that is finding its stride and imposing its will on opponents.
It really begins on the defensive end for Saint Louis, where they smother the life out of every facet of their opponents' game. They force turnovers on 23.3% of opponents' possessions, good for 31st in the nation. If you do have the chance to actually attack the Billiken defense, good shots are difficult to come by. They force a 44.4% shooting mark from two-point range (68th); while the 34.1% that teams shoot from beyond the arc is fairly respectable, the Billikens only let 26.5% of shots against them come from deep. Shooting and crashing isn't a viable strategy, either, as they grab 72.1% of opponent misses (42nd). Their defensive efficiency of 88.9 is 20th in the nation and first in the conference, and it isn't even particularly close. Only three times in the past 22 games has their opponent scored more points than they had possessions.
Lest you think Saint Louis is a one-trick pony, let me share with you that their offensive efficiency is 48th in the country. They score from inside (50.2% 2P%, 65th) and out (35.7% 3P%, 81st) with relatively equal aplomb, though they shoot only a national-average percentage of their shots from three. They also protect the ball well, turning it over on only 17.4% of their possessions. Only 22 teams in the nation get to the line more often than Saint Louis, where they shoot a respectable but not incredible 70.8%. Offensive rebounding is about the only chink in their armor; they rank 282nd in the country in that department.
In contrast to seemingly every other team in the conference, Saint Louis plays down near Xavier's tempo. The 64.3 possession per game pace they've preferred this year is only a possession faster than X's mark. The Billikens are one of the tallest teams in the country with an effective height of +2.6". Bench minutes are right around average, but their experience level is 32nd in the nation according to KenPom.
The player: 5'10", 175 pound senior guard Kwamain Mitchell
The numbers: 9.3/2.2/2.9 on .373/.305/.667 shooting
More numbers: 92.4 ORtg, 22.2% usage rate, 21.2% assist rate
The words: Mitchell was coming into his senior year with plenty of buzz about him as a key to the Billikens' attack, but injuries kept him sidelined for the first eleven games of the year. He's still working his way back and has not been as dynamic as his fans may have hoped, but he still has the potential to go off for big numbers in any given game. For what it's worth, Saint Louis is 15-2 with him on the floor and 8-3 without him this year.
The player: 6'0", 180 pound junior guard Mike McCall, Jr.
The numbers: 10.0/2.7/2.8 on .423/.415/.822 shooting
More numbers: 1.3 steals per game, 111.7 ORtg, 20% assist rate
The words: McCall isn't a prolific offensive player, but he's a killer from the line and can put up big numbers if called upon, as he did in putting 15 on VCU and 18 on Butler in back-to-back games earlier this season. He is more than happy moving the ball around, but his shooting ability demands constant attention from the defense. On the other end of the floor, he's a difficult and active defender.
The player: 6'6", 235 pound sophomore forward Grandy Glaze
The numbers: 3.5/2.8/0.7 on .517/.000/.250 shooting
More numbers: 12.9 minutes per game, 18% DReb%
The words: Grandy Glaze? Yes, Grandy Glaze. Though he doesn't get big minutes, Glaze has been starting fairly regularly during the conference season for Saint Louis. He provides a physical presence on the wing and rebounds well from the three, but the amount of time he spends on the floor is something of a referendum on what the coaching staff thinks of his viability for long stretches of play.
The player: 6'5", 230 pound senior forward Dwayne Evans
The numbers: 12.6/7.2/1.1 on .519/.235/.759 shooting
More numbers: 113.3 ORtg, 23.8% usage rate, 10.2% OReb%, 20.9% DReb%, 2.8% block%, 2.8% steal%
The words: Evans, despite being a touch undersized for a four, does a whole lot of everything for Saint Louis. He is an absolute monster on the glass at both ends and can guard pretty much every position on the floor. He also gets to the line more than anyone else on the team, rarely turns the ball over, and generally acts as the glue that keeps the team together.
The player: 6'11, 240 pound junior center Rob Loe
The numbers: 7.2/3.4/1.0 on .436/.321/.729 shooting
More numbers: 78 3PA, 13% DReb%
The words: Loe is the biggest guy on the roster for the Billikens, but he is on the court primarily to stretch defenses. His ability and willingness to shoot from deep opens things up for the smaller forwards inside, more than making up for his fairly feeble presence on the boards. He's not having quite the year he was last year, but he has still hit three or more threes on four separate occasions this season.
Junior guard Jordair Jett was once just a defensive stopper with stupid hair; now he's putting up 9.9/2.9/3.4 on .535/.379/.625 shooting, though he still has stupid hair. He also has the best assist rate on the team (28.4%); his newly-found offensive prowess combines with his defensive skills to earn him 27 minutes per game off the pine. Senior forward Cody Ellis is a bruiser at 6'8", 245, and he also gets starter's minutes (26.2 per game) off the bench. He goes for 10.6 and 3.5 on a shooting line of .354/.366/.848, leading the team in three-point shots made (52) and attempted (142). Six-foot-eight senior forward Cory Remuken is a defensive specialist off the bench who blocks more than a shot per game in his 19.1 minutes. Six-foot-five junior wing Jake Barnett is 23-65 (35.4%) from behind the arc.
-Will the pace matter? Xavier is finally matched up with a team that doesn't figure to try to get the Muskies into a track meet. Unfortunately, it's a team that is objectively better than X at both ends of the court and likely plans on coming into Cintas and grinding out successful possessions. The pace could help Xavier if they are able to execute in the half court; unfortunately, that's a pretty big if.
-Who will control the boards? Saint Louis basically concedes the glass on their offensive end in favor of getting most of their team back and ready to defend. On Xavier's offensive end, however, it figures to be a battle all night long. With Isaiah Philmore coming on strong and Travis Taylor doing his thing, a rebounding presence from Martin or Robinson on that end could help Xavier grab some second-chance points against a stingy Saint Louis defense.
-Can Semaj handle the pressure? Christon took a bit to settle in against the VCU defense before acquitting himself as reasonably as one can in a ten-turnover game. The Billikens won't chase him all up and down the court, but they are definitely the meaner side once the ball crosses the time line. In a couple of years - assuming he's still in college - Xavier fans will be saying things like "Don't worry, we have Semaj" to one another. There are lessons to be learned along the way to that point, though, and there are no upperclassmen to take the pressure of off Christon as he learns them.
-Challenge shooters. Saint Louis doesn't let fly from beyond the arc with the abandon that UMass does, but the game against the Minutemen once again underscored how important it is to put a hand in the face of someone lifting from deep. Jett, Ellis, and McCall are all proficient long-range gunners, and Rob Loe can put up crooked numbers in a hurry when he has his eye in. X doesn't need to deny the perimeter, but it would behoove them to make the adjustments necessary to check shots from distance.
-Move the ball. Saint Louis' defense is too tough to try to attack on the first side off the dribble. Ball stagnation will be swarmed and choked out and you'll end up seeing a lot of forced 17-foot jump shots at the end of the shot clock. If Xavier wants to crack the defense, they need to move the ball from side to side and make the Billikens work to stay in position. If they can wear Saint Louis down even a little, the opportunity to run may be there late in the game. If Coach Mack repeatedly calls the play where the other four guys watch as Semaj dribbles for 25 seconds and then shoots a contested pull-up jumper from the elbow, it's going to be a long night.
- Score from deep. In all but one of Saint Louis losses this year their opponent has made more than half of the threes they attempted. The only opponent that didn't, Temple, made 45%. Shooting from deep isn't Xavier's thing, but against such a stout half court defense, they are going to have to knock in a few long range shots to have a chance in this game.