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Xavier v. UMass: Preview

Dante Jackson keeps the blue flag flying.
Xavier will host UMass tomorrow to kick off an important early ten-day stretch in A-10 play. The Muskies will follow up the game against Massachusetts by hosting Dayton Saturday, travelling to St. Bonaventure the 19th, then swinging back home to play conference title hopefuls Temple. In those ten days, Xavier will play three games they should win followed by one that they have to. I know it's too early to have an actual must-win game, but 5-0 in conference with a win over Temple in hand would be a nice start to January.

Massachusetts has played the 46th toughest schedule in the nation to this point, and their 8-5 record is good to place them 92nd in the RPI. Xavier, for what it's worth, is sitting at 44th in the RPI thanks in part to the 24th most difficult schedule. Like most teams X will play this year, UMass is shorter (86th nationally in effective height) and deeper than the Muskies. They get 39% of their minutes off the bench, a mark bettered by only 30 teams. On a side note, only two teams get fewer bench minutes than Xavier, but one of those is conference for St. Bonaventure. Fordham comes in 340th in the nation in this category, just three places above X and five above the Bonnies. There will be some A-10 games this year with fewer substitutions than a soccer match.



The Minutemen play to their strengths with an aggressive man defense. They hold their opponents to below average marks in shooting inside and outside the arc, block more than 12% of their opponents' two-point FGA (54th in the nation), force turnovers on almost 24% of opponents' possessions (42nd), and end more than 10% of opponents' possessions with steals (101st). They have defensive weak points as well, allowing offensive rebounds on 36% of opponents' missed shots (298th) and putting opponents on the line at a clip well above the national average.

As much as Xavier leans on Tu Holloway, UMass is even more dependent on 6'3" senior Anthony Gurley, whose surname must have made grade school very difficult for him. Gurley gets 20-4-1 on .493/.790/.404 shooting. He is a slightly more effective shooter from the floor than Holloway, but he's not nearly as good on the ball. He turns it over almost three times a game and has an A/TO well south of the break-even point. I have to believe it will be Dante Jackson's assignment to make life miserable for Gurley, who ESPN anchors would no doubt dub A-Gurl if he played at a larger school.

UMass seems to prefer a faster pace, averaging over 70 possessions per game (52nd in the country). This makes sense given the makeup of their team: of their top seven scorers, 6'8" SO Sampson Carter is the tallest, followed by 6'7" SO Terrell Vinson and a slew of guards. Paradoxically, they are a more successful team when they slow down. The Minutemen average 74 possessions per game in their losses and 68 per game in their wins.

Despite Gurley's efforts, Massachusetts is a horrible shooting team. They shoot .267 from behind the arc (340th in the nation), .456 from inside it (241st), and a respectable .698 from the line (131st). More than 30% of Massachusetts' FGA come from behind the arc, but on 20% of their points are scored from there. This really underscores just how ineffectively they shoot as a team. After Gurley, UMass's next three top scorers combine to get about as many points per shot as Xavier's volume scorer Mark Lyons. Second leading scorer Freddie Riley in particular ought to be ashamed of himself putting up 9.8 PPG on .361/.385./.295 shooting, for .93 points per shot.

Keys to the game:

-Work inside out: Kenny is four inches taller than any UMass regular other than Sean Carter, who gets about 18 minutes per game due to his ability to fill the middle (1.6 BPG). Even with him in the game, Xavier's two-headed interior monster should be the focus of the Muskies' offensive efforts. Tu and Cheek spending the second half cutting through a defense worn down by Frease and McLean works a lot better than those two trying to force their way into the game in the first.

-Make Gurley work: With Dante Jackson struggling on offense (1.0 points per shot this year), he can step up to fill the shoes of former X great Stanley Burrell as defensive stopper. A player of Gurley's caliber is probably going to find a way to get his, but Dante's making it as difficult and inefficient as possible would go a long way towards making X successful.

-Pack the defense: Excepting only their leading scorer (see immediately above), Massachusetts is a horrible shooting team (see slightly farther above), tallying .241 mark from three. Unless checking Gurley or the streak-shooting Gary Correia, no Xavier defender should be wandering more than about 16 feet from the bucket. Xavier should let UMass shoot from distance and focus on neutralizing their respectable offensive rebounding.

-Take care of business: Against a weaker foe at home, X needs to come out with intensity and focus and keep the Minutemen from ever thinking they belong in the game. The longer UMass hangs around, the more bad things can happen. A re-run of Sunday's URI thrashing should be in order.

Toughness factor:

-UMass has stuck with some good teams, posting five-point losses against Boston College and Central Florida, but they've also lost to Maine at home by a dozen and been run off the floor by Seton Hall and Central Connecticut. Xavier is coming off a statement-making conference win and looking to keep momentum. I give this one a 1.5.

-The literally handfuls of you who read this may have noticed that "winnability" has been replaced by "toughness" as the modifier for the factor. I realized having a "winnability factor" where the lower number meant the easier game didn’t make any sense, so I changed it. Mea culpa.