|I'll use any excuse to hail 2004.|
Xavier's upcoming opponent - in Championship Game 2 of 7 by Dante's reckoning - is A-10 laggard St. Joseph's. The Hawks are 7-17 overall and 2-8 in conference; their ranking of 203 in the RPI is bolstered by a 74th ranked SOS. They are far removed from their glory days, when X had to knock them off in the 2004 A-10 tournament to end their undefeated run and earn the Muskies a ticket to the big dance. St. Joe made the Sweet 16 that year (X did them one better by embarking on a magical run to the Elite 8) but have only made it back to the NCAA tournament once since then.
This year's St. Joseph's squad is low on experience, averaging less than a year of it per player. Upperclassmen Idris Hilliard, Charoy Bentley, and Todd O'Brien combine for about 45 minutes per game; the other 155 minutes of playing time go to sophomores and freshmen. The Hawks excel at protecting the basketball, ranking 36th in the nation in turnover percentage. Other than that, they don't do a whole lot well on offense. Their 2P% is 257th in the nation, and their 3P% is 287th. Their .709 mark as a team from the line is in large part negated by the fact that they are 310th nationally in getting to the free throw stripe.
Thanks to freshman forward CJ Aiken's 4.0 BPG, the Hawks are first in the nation in percentage of opponents two-point shots blocked. Their perimeter defense is porous, allowing opponents to shoot 37.2% from behind the arc. They're 310th in the country in forcing other teams to turn the ball over, and 251st in keeping other teams off the offensive glass. St. Joe's pulls in an offensive board on 29.6% of their missed shots, a mark that places them 272nd in the country.
The Hawks offense is led by freshman guards Carl Jones and Langston Galloway. Jones gets 18-3-3 on .415/.750/.405 shooting, and Galloway adds 12-6-3 on .399/.881/.368. Both players also contribute more than a steal per game, and Galloway leads the team in rebounding. Senior forward Idris Hilliard chips in 8-4-1 on .487/.756/.158 shooting and is the only upperclassman averaging more than 9.5 minutes per game. Freshman swingman Daryus Quarles is third on the team in shot attempts despite a shameful .319/.700/.262 shooting line.
This is a game that Xavier has no business losing. Both teams play a similar, low-tempo style, and Xavier's half-court defense has been very good this year. St. Joseph's effective height is just a hair above average and their rebounding has been pretty poor all year; Xavier's big men should have a field day against the undersized Hawks. With a road date against struggling Dayton the scariest game left on the schedule, XU needs to buckle down and take care of business for a couple of weeks.
Keys to the game:
-Play inside-out: Big Kenny has a nasty habit of disappearing from games after the half, but he has made his impact felt with some pretty impressive first halves lately. Xavier should look to him and McLean early and often. If the bigs can be effective early and not lose aggression late, kick outs to the guards will be available as St. Joseph's defense adjusts.
-Ball security: Xavier was pretty loose with the ball last time out, albeit against a Duquesne team known for its ability to force turnovers. Against a team that is almost completely on the other end of the defensive spectrum, Xavier's tally of TOs tomorrow night should be less than half of the 20 they gifted to the Dukes last time out.
-Bury the game: This one shouldn't be close, even taking into account the fact that it's a conference road game. Xavier has done a good job of opening up big leads early, but they also have a habit of letting the other team back into the game before the midway point. A double-digit halftime lead that stays steady or increases in the second period would be a welcome sight for X fans and would give Coach Mack a chance to work in some fresh bodies.
-Road conference game coming off a big win. St. Joe's has some interesting young players and may well make a run for the conference crown in a couple of years. They're clearly not there yet though; I give this one a 1.5.