The going narrative last night was that Long Beach State pulled a resume upset over a ranked team. While that may be technically true, Xavier was still severely understrength thanks to that little incident at Cincinnati. The X men may have missed an opportunity to bolster their own resume come March, but the LBSU loss is more frustrating because of the circumstances than it is damaging to the long-term aspirations of the team. While it's galling for Xavier fans to see a team that could very well be undefeated sitting at 8-2, the ultimate outlook for the team remains the same.
The upcoming matchup against Hawai'i is significantly different in nature. Frankly, Hawai'i kind of stinks this year. Ken Pomeroy judges them as the 249th-best team in the nation, and their schedule bears it out. While Long Beach State came in with a deceptive 5-5, Hawai'i's is, if anything, deceptive in the opposite regard. Their wins are over Cal State Northridge, Pacific, UC Davis, division two Hawai'i Hilo, and North Carolina A & T. All five of the victories occurred on the Hawai'ian islands. Despite their surprisingly competitive showing in their three-point loss to Auburn last night, this is not a team that should be challenging Xavier.
The Warriors are a poor shooting team, especially from outside the arc. They're shooting a slightly above average 49.5% from two-point distance, but that number plummets to a shameful 30.7% when they step behind the stripe. Only one player on the team - Trevor Wiseman - is making more than a third of his three-point attempts; he's 1-2. If Hawai'i has to shoot their way back into a game, they're most likely dead and buried.
To add to their offensive troubles, the Warriors are not very good at keeping hold of the ball. They turn it over on almost a quarter of their possessions, good for 297th in the country. They only end 9.3% of their possessions on steals by the opponent, so Hawai'i does a lot of finding ways to perform dead-ball turnovers. That's a sign of a team that flat out doesn't know its way around on offense. With Xavier being a borderline elite defensive team, they should be able to take advantage of the Warriors' profligate ways on offense.
Leading scorer Zane Johnson posts 14.5/3.7/1.4 per game on a grotesque .336/.333/.932 shooting line. It's beyond me how someone capable of shooting so well from the stripe can be so bad from the floor; shot selection must be a large part of young Mr. Johnson's problem. He also turns the ball over almost three times per game; that adds up to a lot of empty possessions for the 6'6" senior.
Following in his footsteps is freshman point guard Shaquille Stokes. He's second on the team in scoring and puts up 11.8/2.0/3.3 on .330/.283/.784 shooting. When your top scorers are both barely making a third of their attempts from the floor, it's not going to bode well for the offensive efficiency. Stokes also adds three turnovers per game to the mix for Hawai'i. At least he has his inexperience as an excuse.
Junior center Vander Joaquim is Hawai'i's third double digit scorer and far and away more efficient than Stokes and Johnson. Measuring out at 6'10", 245, he gets 11.4/9.7/0.8 on .488/.000/.723 shooting. He gets 1.3 blocks per game in the middle of the defense, but he only has 8 assists on the year. Marking him out of the game will be Big Kenny's responsibility tonight/tomorrow morning. He also averages almost three offensive boards per game, which is something to keep an eye on.
Forward Trevor Wiseman is also active on the glass, grabbing 7.3 RPG to go with his 7.9 PPG. He is shooting .596/.500/.733 on the year, which is a very respectable line. You have to wonder what Hawai'i's offense would look like if their guards didn't burn through so many possessions and were able to get the ball inside a little bit more.
The Warriors are a tall team, 50th in the nation in effective height. That helps them be surprisingly adept on the glass; they're above average on the offensive end and right about national average at keeping opponents off the boards at the other end. It's worth noting that they've been doing this against one of the weakest schedules in the country; only three teams have played an easier slate up to this point.
Hawai'i likes to get the ball out and go, posting just shy of 70 possessions per game. That's not quite as fast as Long Beach's preferred pace, but I'd be surprised if the Warriors could force the issue against Xavier. They're one of the thinnest teams in the nation, getting just 28% of their minutes from the pine. The Warriors are also young, ranking 206th in the country in experience.
-Can X shake off the doldrums? In their two losses this year, Xavier has looked worse than bad; they've looked a little disinterested. The Muskies have floated through the games like so many languid Jeff Robinsons, putting up little more than token resistance at times on the defensive end. Every time Xavier threatened to make things interesting last night, they let Long Beach go on a little spurt to close the door. X needs to start showing a little more of the fire that led them to the 8-0 start if they want to round back into form for the conference season.
-Is Brad Redford okay? Redford has gotten more minutes than at any point in his Xavier career over the past couple of weeks, but he has not looked to be the long-distance weapon that he was when healthy in years past. He seems to be rushing his shot a little bit, and also looks to have lost a little bit of confidence. When Xavier is back to full strength, a sharpshooter off the bench is a huge asset. Getting a chance to shoot himself back into the swing of things against subpar opponents in the next couple of days might do Redford a world of good.
-Who is going to step up at the third forward position? When Dez Wells finally returns, a starting lineup of Holloway, Lyons, Wells, Walker, and Frease seems almost assured by simple logic. Travis Taylor and Jeff Robinson were supposed to provide depth at the forward, but neither of them has taken opportunities to really make his mark on games this season. For Xavier to reach its potential this year, they're going to need someone who is able to spell Frease, Walker, and occasionally Wells if Caoch Mack wants to go big. Taylor has shown a great motor but hasn't been able to finish consistently around the rim; despite that, he still seems the more likely candidate for PF depth... right?
-Justin Martin, keep your hands to yourself. Justin Martin has shown that he can be a big asset to Xavier as a microwave scorer off the bench, and he also shows a lot of desire on the defensive end. That desire is tempered, however, by his complete inability to avoid fouling himself back to the bench for long stretches of the game. Martin has distinct value on the court for Xavier, but his defensive discipline needs to improve for him to be able to make a full impact.
-Finish around the rim. Other than Kenny Frease's 5-6 from the floor, Xavier's big men were 4-17 from the floor. You're not going to win a lot of ball games missing 3/4s of your close range attempts, and the Muskies' forwards were frustratingly inept at and around the rim last night. Putting that performance behind them would be a nice step forward working towards the Gonzaga game and the conference season.
-Make a statement. Simply speaking, Hawai'i is not a team that should be hanging with the Musketeers. X is going to fall in the rankings for a second straight week after the loss to Long Beach State, but X needs to come out tonight and show that they're still a top team in the country. Running the court against Hawai'i would be a nice way to put a little spring in Xavier's step and let people know that X is going to be a force to reckoned with when the suspensions are through.
Bottom line: It's frustrating to drop a couple of games that Xavier could have easily won because Wells and Lyons were missing. As a fan, it's a little bit galling to listen to the national media question Xavier's status because of games played without some the team's best players. It would be viscerally satisfying - if not especially meaningful come March - to beat the brakes off of Hawai'i tonight and signal that everything is back to how it should be. Even without Wells, Xavier should own this game.