I have been saying for a solid seven weeks that 10 conference wins should be enough to get Xavier into the tournament. Since I began saying that, of course, the team has gotten red hot and is now likely playing for seeding. The home stretch for Xavier is brutal - @Georgetown, @St. John's, Creighton, @Seton Hall, Villanova - so it's probably best that the Muskies not hit that stretch in a position to make or break their season. The time to make hay is now.
The first opportunity to pad the record comes against Seton Hall this Saturday. The Pirates' 10-4 record coming into Big East play was superficially impressive, but it carried with it home losses to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter's. After dropping three straight in the conference Seton Hall won 2 of 3 and could have used a win against Butler to move to .500 and at least in the conversation. Instead, they lost by 7 at home and come to Cintas without a realistic chance of climbing back into the title race.
Seton Hall's offense was a strength in the early part of the year, but it has fallen to merely average in conference play. They are a good shooting team, putting up a 49% mark from inside the arc and 40.2% from deep in conference play. More than 40% of their shots come from behind the arc; this is a team that loves to chuck 'em from the cheap seats. Their main weakness is offensive rebounding, which is a poor 27.5% on the year and an astoundingly bad 20.7% in conference play. A team like that isn't just bad on the glass; they're actively choosing to not pursue offensive boards so they can get back in transition.
It's working in a sense, as the Pirates are keeping the tempo low and their defensive possessions long. The problem is that they're not very good in the half-court, either. They're actually an above-average defensive rebounding team, but opponents shoot a hair over 50% from inside the arc against them and they're very poor at forcing turnovers. All that effort to get back is wasted if you can't get stops, and they can't.
It's worth noting that they are a fairly tall team, with an effective height of +2.3" and an average height of 6'6". They are deep, getting almost 36% of their minutes off the bench, and an experienced squad. What they are not, it seems, is very good at basketball. Also, Ken Pomeroy rates their out-of-conference schedule as fifth weakest in the NCAA.
The player: 6'2", 185-pound guard Sterling Gibbs
The numbers: 14.7/3.6/4.5 on .424/.345/.766 shooting
More numbers: 26.6% usage rate, 30.9% assist rate, 7.6 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: Everybody prefers shooting layups if they can, but Sterling Gibbs is a relentless attacker of the basket. More than half his 172 field goal attempts have come from the rim, and another 55 have come from beyond the arc. If he crosses the three-point line, he's likely going all the way to the rack. He's also adept at drawing contact on the way there, far and away leading the team with 167 FTA. To top it off, he also has more assists than any two of his teammates put together. Gibbs is the real deal as an attacking combo guard.
The player: 6'6", 215-pound wing Fuquan Edwin
The numbers: 14.1/3.4/1.5 on .452/.388/.778 shooting
More numbers: 31.7% shots%, 6.5% steal%, 103.9 ORtg
The words: Edwin basically loves to shoot, taking almost a third of the team's shots when he's on the floor. He'll go to the rim, pull up from mid-range, or lift from deep with almost equal frequency. His shooting percentages are above average and frankly impressive considering the sheer volume of his attempts, but his hesitance to pass and his inability to get to the line (45 FTA) keep him from being hugely efficient on offense. Defensively, he takes advantage of his size to average more than 3 steals per game.
The player: 6'7", 225-pound wing Brian Oliver
The numbers: 12.2/3.8/0.9 on .418/.434/.844 shooting
More numbers: 58.7% EFG%, 117 ORtg
The words: Despite his size, Oliver is a catch-and-shoot guy who is most comfortable on the perimeter. Of his 196 field goal attempts, 152 of them have happened from behind the arc. Of the 66 threes he has made, 4 of them have come without an assist. His rebounding numbers are poor - he has one more offensive board than Sterling Gibbs - but he is a threat to go off from deep. He hit 6 threes against Villanova and 5 against St. John's.
The player: 6'9" 235-pound forward Patrick Auda
The numbers: 9.3/4.9/1.3 on .541/.286/.775 shooting
More numbers: 120.6 ORtg, 18.7% DReb%, 5.7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: Auda lives at the rim on offense, taking 70% of his shots there, but he somehow manages to avoiding pulling down offensive boards. It's not because he's a bad rebounder (as evidenced by that DReb%), so I'm going to assume he has been tasked with beating opponent bigs back to the other end. He also launches the occasional three, for what that's worth. He's an effective scorer both from the post and the line and should probably be a bigger part of the offense than he is.
The player: 6'9", 270-pound center Gene Teague
The numbers: 10.5/8.4/0.9 on .619/.000/.598 shooting
More numbers: 16.9% OReb%, 22.5% DReb%, 5.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, 2.8% block%
The words: Teague is an absolute monster in the paint. He's 11th in the nation in OReb% and 93rd in DReb%. Twenty-four of his 66 made baskets have come on stickbacks. Like Auda, he suffers from having a perimeter-focused offense, but he goes in and gets his. If Xavier's big men fall asleep on the glass, he'll make the team pay.
Junior forward Brandon Mobley averages 8.7 and 5.1 on .418/.281/.792 shooting in 26 minutes per game; he also leads the team in blocked shots and is an excellent defensive rebounder. Jaren Sina is a reserve guard who comes on to distribute (20.6% assist rate) and shoot the occasional three (15-40 from deep). Six-foot-six wing Haralds Karlis bounces in and out of the rotation to little apparent effect, and 6'6" wing Stephane Manga averages 4.3 points in just 10.8 minutes to round out the bench mob for the Pirates.
-How does Xavier handle big guards? Teams with perimeter size have given the Muskies trouble at times this year, and Seton Hall certainly fits that description. Gibbs and Edwin have 2-3" each on Davis and Christon, which is going to be a matchup problem at both ends. With Edwin's defensive prowess likely matched up on Semaj, Xavier could need to look elsewhere for points. Getting Christon going early against Edwin would be a huge boost, but that's far from a given against a big, experienced, and talented opponent.
-What's up with Matt Stainbrook? The Stain Train has been sputtering lately and Xavier's offense is worse for it. The book is out on him (force him off his left hand and he can be guarded one-on-one) and it's time for him to adjust. If teams aren't forced to help onto him, the passing lanes he expertly picks apart aren't as open. It's the apogee of silliness to question the work ethic of a guy who lost a baby sea lion's worth of weight in a year, so I'm confident it's a matter of when, not if, a turnaround will come for Stainbrook.
-Can Coach Mack get a handle on the defense? Mack said after the loss at Providence that some good results for the team had been hiding the fact that Xavier's processes, especially on defense, had been poor. Unfortunately for X, there are no Fordhams or Central Floridas on this conference schedule, so adjustments are going to have be made on the fly. The Muskies play twice a week from here on out; this week was probably the team's last chance to make any intensive changes.
-Why does Fuquan Edwin wear pants to play? A cursory search of the internet reveals nothing. Is it cramps? Religious reasons? Does he just think it looks cool? This is destined to remain a mystery, at least until someone comments to tell me.
-Charge down shooters. Seton Hall likes to lift from deep and they've been fairly successful in their efforts during conference play. Frankly, their most likely path to keeping this game close is to shoot early and often from behind the arc and hope for the best. With a week under his belt to prepare, Coach Mack can have no excuse if the team comes out and lets the Pirates start bombarding them. The glass isn't a priority for Seton Hall and they're not a dynamic interior team; allowing uncontested threes would be a cardinal sin for Xavier.
-Rebound and go. Seton Hall profiles as a team that is abandoning the offensive glass to send players back down the court to defend. The Muskies have guards with enough speed to put pressure on any defense, but it really helps out the rebounders if the opponent's bigs are heading the other way as soon as the shot goes up. X can take some of the strain off of the forwards if they keep Seton Hall on the back foot. The Muskies don't necessarily need to get points in transition, but forcing the defense to get back and prevent them from doing so will be a boost.
-Bury the game. In that Xavier is rarely out of a game when trailing, they've also displayed a knack for keeping an opponent in the game when leading big. Seton Hall is capable of putting up a spurt in a hurry with the way they shoot three-pointers. After looking distinctly pedestrian against Providence, it would help Xavier re-establish themselves if they could win big and carry that momentum through the quick turnaround to Monday's Villanova game. X is better than Seton Hall, and it would be nice to show that for 40 whole minutes tomorrow.