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Xavier v. St. Louis: Preview

Now we're all feeling the love
When Xavier and St. Louis last met, Xavier was going through their "letting mediocre conference opponents hang with us" phase. Up by seven at the break, Xavier succumbed to an admittedly improbable three-point shooting display from St. Louis forward Rob Loe (5-5/4-4/4-4 on the day) and found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreline with 15 minutes left to play. Tu dropped 20 of his 24 in the second half, Cheek had 15 points and 7 assists, and Dante began emerging from his shooting slump to carry X to a 76-68 victory. The Muskies also dominated the paint, outrebounding the Billikens 33-24 - including 10-1 on the offensive end - and having McLean and Big Kenny combine for 23-16. Coming off the loss to Charlotte, a more convincing display might have helped Muskie fans feel better about the direction the team was going.

That loss started a four-game skid for St. Louis (who I'm assuming is Nelly's favorite college basketball team), but they've snapped out of it lately. In their last four games, they've beaten Charlotte, Chicago St., and Duquesne at home and Dayton by 18 at UD Arena. St. Louis continues to be one of the worst offensive teams in the conference. They're shooting 29% from behind the arc in A-10 play and are next to last in the conference in avoiding turnovers and blocked shots. They also come up 12th in the conference in getting offensive rebounds and finding their way to the free throw line. The Billikens do manage to hit almost half their two-point attempts though, good for fourth in the 14-team A-10.

It is their defense, particularly on the interior, that makes St. Louis a tough game. They're third in the conference in 2p% allowed and fourth in forcing turnovers and preventing offensive boards. They're a pedestrian ninth in 3P% allowed, but no team in the conference allows a fewer threes per field goal attempted. St. Louis's defense does a good job of forcing the ball inside; only 20% of opponents' points come from behind the arc, the lowest number in the A-10.

St. Louis is also the second-deepest team in the conference, getting functionally 36% of their minutes from the pine. While they don't use these fresh legs to push the pace - their adjusted tempo is a possession and a half slower than Xavier's - this depth does allow them to keep up the defensive intensity that has held their last four opponents to 56, 52, 51, and 51 points. The Billikens' seven underclassmen in the rotation perhaps understand that future minutes are in large part contingent on current defensive output.

With the conference won and Senior Night in the past, only a road game against the least experienced team in the conference stands between Xavier and Boardwalk Hall. Since Xavier has the #1 seed in the A-10 tourney wrapped up already, there's not necessarily a lot on the line for the Muskies tomorrow. In that vein, I think the game will be a good test of the team's professionalism (for lack of a better term). Against a bottom of the table team, on the road, with the conference sewn up, will Xavier come prepared for a full 40 minutes, or will they show the lack of killer instinct that has plagued them throughout the season?

Keys to the game:
-Don't cruise: St. Louis is not a great team, but they are by no means a pushover. If Xavier shows up looking like they think attendance is the only compulsory component to victory, they're going to leave disappointed. Likewise, the Billikens showed that they have no quit in them when the teams last played. Xavier needs to come out looking to bury the game and then keep digging until the final horn.

-Beat up the middle: Jamel McLean's talent and sheer physicality will be missed next year, but Xavier should take full advantage of them while he's still here. With 6'8" Cody Ellis out for the year because of the injury he suffered when these two teams last met, 6'11" Rob Loe is the only player over 6'7" left in the Billikens' rotation. Given the change, Jamel and Big Kenny can dominate the paint just like they did in February.

-Execute on the perimeter: The guards need to focus on getting the big men actively involved early in the game. Once the focus off the defense is drawn to the post, perimeter players need be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that focus will afford them. Dante, Cheek, and Tu combined to go 7-13 from behind the arc against St. Louis at Cintas; another such performance should send Xavier into the A-10 Tournament with 16 wins in their last 17 games.

Toughness factor:
-Conference road games can be fraught with disaster, as can games against teams with potentially lockdown defense. Xavier faces both of those factors against a St. Louis team that figures to be highly motivated to pick up a statement win and improve its standing heading into the conference tournament. St. Louis gave Xavier a run at home and won at UD Arena by 18 three days after Xavier won there by 4. This game is not just Xavier's A-10 victory lap; I give it a 2.5.