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Xavier v. Oral Roberts: Preview

One of the great things about the ongoing college basketball season is that, as teams get more games under their belts, you can start to get a feel for what a team really is. Like sandpaper (if you will), the bumps in the road along the first 10-12 games of the year smooth out the small sample size freak stats and leave behind the beginnings of an accurate picture of how a team is actually going to behave for the rest of the season. The Golden Eagles of Oral Roberts, however, remain something of an enigma in terms of actual on-court performance.

After a respectable seven-point loss at West Virginia to start off the season, ORU suffered a nearly inexplicable one-point defeat against the University of Texas-San Antonio. The Golden Eagles shook that off and reeled off five straight against a generally weak schedule, though their home victory over a respectable Missouri State stands them in good stead. Things have ground to a halt lately for the Golden Eagles though; a 14-point loss at Oklahoma and a 6-point setback at Gonzaga bracketed a three-point win against University of Arkansas-Little Rock that came only courtesy of a borderline miraculous game-winning shot. Sunday's game at Xavier will be the final contest of a four-game road trip that has so far not treated ORU very kindly at all.

Oral Roberts' team is built on a slow, grind-it-out offensive approach that attempts to cover for some of the weaknesses the team possesses. The most glaring of these is that the teams is dreadful from behind the arc. Their .304 mark from deep is poor by any standards, but the Golden Eagles do hit more than half of their shots from two-point range. They are also an excellent free throw shooting team, hitting 72.5% of their attempts from the stripe. Sitting just inside the top 100 in the nation at getting to the line - and having just under 78% of their points come from inside the arc or the line, ORU's game plan clearly does not include reliance on the three-point shot.

Defensively, Oral Roberts is basically helpless when the other team has the ball. Opponents shoot .513/.331/.714 against ORU, good for a 50.8 EFG% that makes Oral Roberts' defense 244th in the nation in that department. They're particularly weak inside; only 23 teams allow a higher percentage of total points given up to be scored inside the three-point arc. Perhaps recognizing that, they instead focus on not allowing opponents to keep the ball for very long. They're 117th in the nation in steal percentage and 86th in forcing turnovers overall.

The Golden Eagles have not been blessed with especially big forwards, ranking 314th in the nation in effective height. Despite this, they are a dominant rebounding team, especially on the offensive glass. ORU pulls down 38.6% of their own misses, good for 25th in the nation. They're near as makes no difference average on the defensive glass. I suspect this disparity is down to a philosophical commitment to the offensive glass, as well as the fact that their guards are above average in size.

The headline player for the Golden Eagles is wing Dominique Morrison. The 6'6" senior was feted with pre-season awards and is backing that up with 15.9/4.6/1.9 this season. He's a little less efficient than you'd like to see from a primary scorer, with a shooting line of .414/.235/.785. He shot 40% from deep last year, which seems to indicate that this is a preseason slump rather than a transition into being a volume shooter. A positive A:TO and 14 offensive boards this year round out his meaningful contributions to the team.

Damen Bell-Holter occupies the center position for Oral Roberts, posting 9.2/6.0/1.2 and 1.2 blocks per game on .449/.400/.563 shooting. The 6'9", 245 big man is more of a threat inside than out; he's 2-5 from deep this year. Back spasms sidelined him for five games in November, but he's back and approaching full strength at this point. He gets almost 3 offensive boards per game, and has post 11 boards in 2 of his last 4 outings. His relentlessness on the glass is a big part of what Oral Roberts does, especially in keeping possessions alive for the offense.

Bell-Holter's return to the lineup leaves one of forwards Michael Craion and Steven Roundtree coming off the bench. Both post remarkably similar raw numbers (11.9/7.1/1.2 on .548/.000/.763 for Craion versus 10.5/6.4/1.3 on .545/.000/.681 for Roundtree), but I would suspect that Craion's high steal rate (2.3 per game v 0.6 per for Roundtree) more than makes up for the fact that he's the shorter of the two by three inches, standing only 6'5". Both players are forces on the offensive glass, each grabbing more than three boards per game at their attacking end.

In the back court, Warren Niles is a big-bodied guard who can't shoot a lick. His .340/.254/.781 shooting line this year hasn't stopped him trying though; he's second only to Morrison in field goal attempts on the team. Helping him out in the other guard slot is Roderick Pearson, Jr., who is the much better shooter (.444/.429/.680) of the two and the team's only credible threat from deep. He also leads the team in assists (30) and turnovers (also 30). Ick.

As a team, Oral Roberts is thin - with 22.5% of their minutes coming off the bench, good for 329th in the nation - but experienced averaging 2.19 yrs in college per player, 34th nationally. They figure to start three seniors and two juniors, and the first two guys off the bench are a junior and a sophomore. Their talent pool is limited and they have some issues as a team, but they've shown toughness this year. There's no question that this team knows what it is trying to accomplish, and their efforts to fluster Xavier's more inexperienced players this Sunday are going to be in full swing.

Three questions:
-Who runs the point?
Darwin Davis is the obvious first choice (as the only scholarship point guard on the roster), but Xavier's options are limited after that, and it's questionable whether he is able to handle those duties for 40 minutes. That's not an indictment of Davis' ability, it's just a fact. It's a very real consideration that, aside from being a set of skills and duties, point guard is an actual position in the offense. Andre Walker has shown that he can bring the ball up the floor, but I very much doubt that he's been taught the whole offense that the one. Can you see him coming off a ball screen at the top of the key? If X has to go away from Davis at the point - which they will - it may result in the Muskies running a pared-down version of their playbook. Heck, it will probably be that way even with Davis at the controls.

-Can Big Kenny be the primary offensive threat? Three of Xavier's top four scorers will be in streets for this game, leaving Kenny Frease as the top active scorer for the Muskies. Of the players left surrounding him, only Justin Martin has shown even the potential to make his own shot. The rest are either distributors (Davis), spot-up guys (Redford), or opportunistic scorers mostly on the offensive glass (Walker, Taylor, Robinson). Kenny has played in mostly guard-oriented offenses, but he has shown the capability to get his own buckets if adequately supplied on the post. Xavier's offense may well run through the big man on Sunday; if he answers the bell, Coach Mack will be breathing a lot more easily as the game progresses.

-Is Xavier ready to play without Tu and Cheeks? X's back court is not only extremely accomplished on the court, they're also the emotional leaders of the team. We saw last Saturday what happened what that emotionality and leadership go astray, but it is by and large the passion of those two that has lead Xavier to their comebacks this year and the 39:51 of triumph against UC. With them out, who is going to circle the wagons for the Muskies if/when the going gets tough? Who will be dragging the team members into the huddle should X fall down double digits and be in need of a spark? Someone is going to have to step up to fill that void on Sunday; your guess is as good as mine who it will be.

Three keys:
-Limit turnovers.
Oral Roberts likes to grind it out on offense, so every possession is going to be valuable for the Muskies. ORU's defense is not especially strong aside from being able to get the other team to turn the ball over. If Xavier is able to keep hold of the ball, they should be able to exploit the weakness of the Golden Eagles, especially inside the arc. Big Kenny has had a serious turnover problem this season; with his figuring to be the focus of the offense Sunday, a lot of the onus for protecting the ball is going to be on him.

-Keep the guards off the glass. With the diminutive Davis and Redford patrolling the perimeter against the bigger guards and Oral Roberts being committed to offensive rebounding, the guards are going to have to be ready to do their part to help the bigs out on the boards. If Frease, Taylor, and company have to more than account for ORU's aggressive big men on the offensive glass it's going to be a big problem for X and an indication of a big failure by the guards.

-Pound the middle.
It can't be repeated enough. Kenny Frease is the most quantifiable advantage the Musketeers have in this game; only Bell-Holter has the bulk to bang with BK, and he's giving up three inches. Regardless of the early returns Xavier gets, they have to persist in getting the ball to the big man in the post. With spot-up shooters like Redford, Martin, and, yes, even Griffin McKenzie available, working inside out is going to be the best way for the Muskies to crack open Oral Roberts' defenses.

Bottom line:
Xavier's second and third games in Hawai'i don't figure to be against too tough competition; I'm not concerned about the impact of Wells' suspension on them. Tu Holloway has showed time and again that he's capable of being the entire difference between a win and a loss; if anyone can get Xavier minus Cheeks and Dez past a battle-tested Long Beach State team, it's him. Sunday, though, it's Big Kenny's show. In his four years at Xavier, Frease has posted some big games and shown up at times when X has needed him most. Xavier's chances of heading to Hawai'i undefeated hinge on the senior's ability to lead a squad missing the other three of its top four scorers past a determined and capable opponent Sunday. The matchups are there; it's Kenny's time to shine.