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Xavier v. Duquesne: Preview

With their first conference win in the bag, the Xavier Musketeers return home for perhaps the most pivotal stretch of the season. Games at the Cintas Center against Duquesne (1/11), St Bonaventure (1/14), and St Joseph's (1/18) comprise not only a three-game home stand for a Muskies team that desperately needs some home cooking but also an opportunity for Xavier to re-establish itself atop the suddenly competitive Atlantic 10. After those three games, Xavier travels to Dayton before hosting a surprisingly resurgent St Louis team. Three winnable games in front of two very losable ones adds all the more impetus on Xavier to make hay during the upcoming eight-day stretch.

It begins with last year's early season darlings, the Duquesne Dukes. The Dukes are off to a more modest 10-6 start this year, and they lack any sort of banner win upon which to hang their hats. Further, losses to Valparaiso, Robert Morris (at home), and Western Michigan will not stand the team in good stead when it comes time to weigh their at-large resume. Duquesne is 1-1 in conference, with a two-point OT loss to St Joseph's and a shellacking of St Bonaventure, both at home.

Duquesne is built in the manner to which we've become accustomed for a Ron Everhart team. They're not big at all, ranking 319th in the nation in effective height and 336th in average height. To combat that, they attempt to turn every game into a track meet. Their pace this year of just over 70 possessions per game is 39th in the nation but actually down almost two possessions from their pace last year. Duquesne's pace is integral to their success this year; in their five regulation defeats, they have averaged 65.6 possessions. They've racked up 74 possessions per game in their 10 wins.

Extra possessions are at the heart of the Dukes' ability to push the pace, and this year has been no different. They are not a very good defensive team if their opponent manages to get a shot up; their eFG% allowed is 227th in the nation, and their three-point percentage defense is 266th. Opponents are also able to grab 38.8% of their own misses, which lands Duquesne squarely in the bottom 20 in the nation in terms of defending the glass. The key to their success lies in their exceptional ability to force turnovers; they're ninth in the nation, ending 25.9% of opponents possessions that way.

Offensively, they are sensational at preserving possession even while playing at a very high pace. Their turnover rate of 16.5% is 12th in the country, and nobody gives up fewer steals on offense than the Dukes. As you might expect from the tenor of the article to this point, they are bad at offensive rebounding, ranking 289th in OR%. Duquesne is a very effective shooting team inside the arc, knocking down 54% of their two-point shots. Things are a different story from deep, where their 33.4% success rate on three-point attempts is distinctly mediocre.

Point guard TJ McConnell is central to the cause on both ends for the Dukes. He has played 100 more minutes than any other player on the team this season, amassing a 12.0/4.3/6.3 line on .533/.490/.786 shooting in that time. The 6'1" sophomore has also added three steals per game and keeps his A:TO well north of 2:1. He only has six blocked shots, though; there are things he can't do. For the most part, McConnell gets the Dukes out and going and does a great job of avoiding turnovers while setting a high pace.

Junior guard Sean Johnson leads the team in scoring, putting up 16.3/31./1.4 on a .478/.349/.825 shooting line. Despite not having McConnell's accuracy from the floor, he is significantly less hesitant to put it up. He averages a shot attempt every 2.3 minutes played to McConnell's one every 3.9 minutes. Of the five Duquesne players who average at least 21 minutes per game, Johnson has the fewest steals. He is on the court primarily - or maybe exclusively - to get buckets, and he does so at a pretty good clip.

Senior BJ Monteiro plays the swing position in the Dukes G-G-G-G/F-F lineup and leads the team in rebounding. At 6'5", he's more of a wing than a forward, but he fits well in Everhart's system. His line of 15.2/5.7/2.1 comes with a steal and a block per game. Unfortunately for Duquesne, he was injured in an off-court incident around the New Year and was expected at the time to miss 2-4 games. If Monteiro is ready to go against Xavier, he'll probably be at less than full strength.

Filling Monteiro's shoes - assuming he's absent - will be some combination of 6'5" Jerry Jones, 6'6" Kadeem Pantophlet, and maybe 6'8" Mamadou Datt. Jones gets 5.9/3.0/0.6 in 21.3 minutes per game and shoots .576/.367/.769; I'd suspect he'll get the start and the bulk of the minutes. Neither Pantophlet (15 minutes per game) nor Datt (11 minutes per game) posts inspiring numbers, but they both might be pressed into action.

Anchoring the middle will be 6'7" junior Andre Marhold, who is the biggest regular player on the squad. He goes for 5.6/4.1/0.4 a night on a grim .547/.000/.404 shooting. Despite his comparatively diminutive stature, he is in the top 100 in the nation in block % (percentage of opponents' two-point shots taken while he's on the floor that he blocks) and swats 1.6 per game. Mostly, he's in to attempt to provide a meaningful defensive presence in the middle without slowing the team down.

Guard Eric Evans also warrants mentioning; he isn't a great shooter, but his line of 10.2/2.4/2.8 helps the team out more than his .400/.220/.788 shooting line hurts them. He's listed at 5'11", but he adds 1.3 steals per game and another reliable ball-handler to a team that definitely relies on both of those things. Mike Talley is another 5'11" guard who grabs about 20 minutes per game, but it's hard to say exactly why. His line of 7.6/1.6/2.4 isn't that bad, but his shooting numbers of .341/.250/.706 sure are. If here lacked the proficiency to draw fouls that has gotten him to the line 68 times this year, he'd have real trouble scoring/contributing anything meaningful.

Three questions:
-How does Xavier matchup?
Much like LaSalle, Duquesne doesn't bring a whole bunch of size to the table, but they do have a lot of speed and athletic ability. Marhold is a respectable interior defender, but he doesn't get a whole lot of help once the ball gets into the lane. Just judging from the results of the LaSalle game, I'm suspecting Coach Mack is going to stick with the same lineup he naturally favors and let nature run its course. With the swarming Duquesne defense to deal with, look for more Davis and Martin and less Redford on the perimeter, and more of Travis Taylor than Jeff Robinson inside.

-How much does Xavier need Tu to score?
Tu Holloway posted a goose egg in the scoring column against Fordham, marking the first time he's achieved that dubious honor since his freshman year. His performance was far from anonymous, though. With Coach Mack preaching ball movement and unselfish play, his point guard came out and set the tone for the team by getting the ball out of his hands as quickly as he received it to keep the offense moving. He ended the game with 5 assists and Xavier had 18 assists on 23 made buckets. I'm not saying Xavier doesn't ever need baskets out of Holloway, but the team's reliance on him as a scorer may diminish in concert with his ability to distribute the ball.

-Can Xavier defend the perimeter? LaSalle and Fordham both had big nights from deep against a X, a development that was particularly troubling in light of Fordham's previous struggles to connect on three-point shots. A big part of Xavier's identity is their ability to defend, and it was that ability that provided the impetus for their memorable early-season comebacks. If a Duquesne team that is distinctly mediocre from deep makes it rain at Cintas, it might be time to have some real concerns regarding Xavier's perimeter prowess.

Three keys:
-Run with discretion.
It's no secret - or it shouldn't be by this point - that the Dukes like to push the tempo of the game. It's also obvious that they can be held in check by teams - even bad teams - that can control the pace. Xavier shouldn't be pulled too far out of their fast-breaking tendencies, though. Cheeks and Dez have the ability to run and jump with any team in the nation, and Tu Holloway excels at getting the ball between foul lines in transition. Xavier needs to pick its spots and run without allowing Duquesne to turn the game into a track meet that neutralizes Xavier's size advantage. Speaking of which...

-Use the size advantage. Travis Taylor and Andre Walker are both at least as tall as anyone Duquesne will use to guard them, and both are top-tier offensive rebounders. Big Kenny towers over the entire Duquesne roster and is rated by KenPom among the top 10% or so of defensive rebounders and shot blockers. Xavier can get the ball out and go, but the team may well be best served to slow the game and let Big Kenny go to work on the 6'7" Andre Marhold while some combination of Walker, Taylor, Justin Martin, and even Jeff Robinson makes havoc on the offensive glass.

-Protect the basketball. Duquesne is not a very good defensive team, relying mostly on opponents' turnovers to mask the fact that they can't stop people from scoring. There is going to be a lot of pressure on Tu, Cheeks, and (to a lesser degree) Dez Wells to protect the ball on the perimeter, but the bigs also have to make sure not to waste possessions near the bucket. The Dukes do a good job of winning the possession war; keeping them from doing that Wednesday at Cintas will translate into success on the scoreboard for Xavier.

Bottom line:
Much like LaSalle, Duquesne is a small team that forces the tempo and makes the opponent consider matchup decisions. When Xavier played LaSalle last week, the Muskies looked listless and off balance, letting LaSalle build an insurmountable first-half lead. X left points at the free throw line and around the bucket by missing easy finishes, and the team's inevitable rally came up short at the end. Execution will be the order of the day for the Muskies. If they can keep hold of the ball and stay within their game, the team will defend the conference's longest home winning streak and take one more step on the path back to a good year. If Duquesne gets Xavier off kilter early, it's going to be a long road back into the game for the Musketeers.