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Xavier v. Charlotte: Preview

At some point in time, a season that began so brightly has to have gone through a phase where you recalibrated your expectations. Right before people started throwing hands in the Crosstown Shootout, there was a real sense around this Xavier squad that they could be something special. After the ensuing suspensions were levied, it was easy to see X as a team of destiny temporarily derailed by a less-than-full squad. In the 5-7 stretch that has followed that 8-0 start, however, it has to have sunken in that the opportunity for a historically good season has flown out the window. At 13-7, the best Xavier and its fans can hope for is to get hot at the end of the conference year, roll into the NCAA tournament with some momentum, and take advantage of some favorable matchups. On the negative end of the spectrum, the potential of the NIT is looming larger, should Xavier transition from alarming slide to full-scale collapse.

Xavier is heading out on a three-game road trip now, with Charlotte being the first stop. The 49ers have been something less than dominant this season, sitting at 10-9 with a 2-4 record in Atlantic 10 play. Their best win is a 23-point romp over Davidson at home; other than that, wins over Richmond and St Joseph's are the banner accomplishments for this team. They've played some of their toughest competition close, though, losing by nine at Memphis and by a single point when they hosted Saint Louis. On the other hand, they fell by 18 at Lamar and were beaten at home by East Tennessee State. Consistency has been an issue for the 49ers, but - with a record of 3-7 in their last ten games - they've been consistently bad lately.

Most of that is because of their offense; they are complete rubbish on the offensive end. We'll cover that in a minute, though; given Xavier's recent form, the most notable thing about Charlotte is junior forward Chris Braswell. Braswell is 6'8", 235 lbs and plays like a bigger, more versatile version of Brian Conklin. You probably don't need to be reminded that Conklin gutted Xavier for 19 points on Wednesday. Braswell puts up 14.4/7.4/1.4 per game and also adds 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks. He shoots .466/.357/.785 but does most of his damage inside the arc. He also grabs almost ten percent of his team's misses when he's on the floor, which adds up to almost three offensive boards per game. Braswell falls somewhere between Matt Kavanaugh and Conklin in size but is probably more athletic than both of them; given the chance, he'll put the same hurting on Xavier that those two did.

In terms of the team at large, Charlotte is - as I mentioned before - not good at putting the biscuit in the basket. Their best trait is the ability to not turn the ball over; the team's TO rate of 20.1% is basically national average. After that, things get really bad. They shoot 32.3% from three, 45% from inside the arc, and 65.1% from the line. All of those place them in the bottom 100 teams in the nation in each respective category. They only rebound 30% of their own misses, which is good for 251st in the country. Despite their miserable showing from deep, they take 36% of their field goal attempts from behind the arc. Finally, 11.5% of all of their two-point attempts get blocked, which places them in the worst 50 teams in the nation at avoiding getting swatted.

Things are only getting worse for Charlotte, too. Pierria Henry was leading the team in assists and steals and shooting 40.6% from deep, but he's recovering from a knee injury he endured in practice and will not be active against X. Henry had started every game he played this year, as has 6'0" guard Derrio Green. Green gets 7.4/1.4/2.0 per game and shoots a shameful .321/.321/.744. With Henry out, Green will probably see more of the ball than he was previously. While his A:TO is hovering just under two, that shooting line is going to lead to a lot of empty possessions for Charlotte.

One of the other starting guard positions is occupied by DeMario Mayfield and his 10.0/6.2/2.2 game line. At 6'5", 205, Mayfield has been playing the wing for the 49ers this year. Mayfield shoots .412/.276/.440, which is frankly kind of brutal. Charlotte is one of the worst shooting teams Xavier will play this year, and most of their players share in the blame for that. With Henry out, Mayfield is the team's active leader in assists and steals, and he only averages 1.3 TO per game.

Working inside in the 49ers' G-G-G-F-F lineup and starting alongside Chris Braswell is Javarris Barnett. He actually leads the team in minutes per game at 31.2 en route to putting up an 11.5/6.5/1.6 line on .416/.356/.739 shooting. At 31-87 from deep, he leads the team in three-point shots made and three-point shots attempted. He's also a very capable defensive rebounder, grabbing 16.7% of opponents' misses and tying Mayfield for the team lead with 88 defensive boards on the year. Despite being 6'7" and capable of stretching the defense to create mismatches, Barnett is pretty poor at getting to the line; he averages barely more than two free throws per game.

Five-foot-ten Jamar Briscoe will probably fill Henry's place in rounding out the starting lineup, though he's more of a shoot-first player and not as good on defense. His brutally inefficient 7.2/2.4/0.9 comes on .376/.328/.697 shooting. There's a reason that he wasn't starting with Henry healthy despite the fact that he's a junior and Henry's a freshman. Any time you have a guy who needs 125 shots to get 137 points on the year, rooted to the bench is the best place to have him. Unfortunately for Charlotte fans, that's no longer where Briscoe can be found at the tip.

Charlotte is painfully thin at guard with Henry out, and help off the bench at forward is just as difficult for the Niners. The pretentiously dubbed E Victor Nickerson gets 17 minutes per game off the bench despite shooting .258/.143/.565. He probably goes to bed at night thanking God he's 6'7". KJ Sherrill gets 13 minutes and puts up 3.2 and 1.4 on .500/.000/.727 shooting. At 6'7", 225 lbs, he can be found in the paint when he can't be found on the pine.

Defensively, Charlotte is actually pretty good. Former Xavier assistant Alan Major has the team in the top 60 in the nation with a 93.9 adjusted defensive efficiency rating. They're holding teams to 46.6% shooting inside the arc and 33.1% shooting from deep; both of those numbers land them between 120 and 140 in the country. Defending the glass is a big strength for Charlotte, as they allow teams to rebound only 30% of their own misses. Basically, they're as good on the defensive glass as they are bad on the offensive. Finally, Charlotte forces turnovers on 22.2% of opponents' possessions, which sneaks them into the top 100 in the country at 99th.

Three questions:
-Does anyone other than Tu and Cheeks want any part of winning a basketball game?
In the last 11:50 of the Saint Louis game - basically from the point at which Xavier put the game into doubt until the final buzzer - no Musketeer other than Holloway and Lyons hit a field goal. The only point of Xavier's final 20 that those two didn't score came on a Kenny Frease free throw. When it got to crunch time, nobody else on Xavier seemed to want to take responsibility for the outcome of the game. More troublingly, on Jeff Robinson's willingness to linger near the rim waiting for someone to feed him an easy dunk gave Xavier a third double-digit scorer. If Xavier is going to salvage anything from this year, someone other than Tu and Cheeks is going to have to grow a set and keep the opposing defense from focusing solely on those two players.

-Can Xavier handle a skilled post man? The Musketeers' defense has been flat-out embarrassed by goofy white guys (Brian Conklin and Matt Kavanaugh) in their last two games. Coming up Saturday is Chris Braswell. Though he fits neither of the above criteria, he is - more pertinently - similar to both of those players in his build and offensive style. Someone out of the quartet of Frease, Walker, Taylor, and Robinson is going to have to figure out how to be a man-to-man presence against a skilled big man. If Xavier can't get one-on-one defense on the post from at least one of those four players, the whole defensive system falls apart.

-Can Coach Mack get the team ready and make early adjustments? Coach Mack is (apparently) a very good recruiter. Coach Mack can make adjustments at half time that allow Xavier to work into deficits. What Coach Mack seems to be struggling with right now is having the team ready to play as soon as the ball goes up. Benching Cheeks and Big Kenny against Saint Louis was probably supposed to send a message, but it didn't appear to get the team ready to go. The Billikens shot 7-14 from deep in the first half and 0-7 from there in the second, which hints perhaps at Mack's ability to make adjustments and/or motivate the team in the locker room. If Xavier wants to be able to win games against good teams, though, those adjustments and that fire have to come before the team is staring down the barrel of a double-digit lead for the opponent.

Three keys:
-Show an interior threat.
I think it would be a very slim minority of Xavier fans that are still holding out hope for Kenny Frease to put it together or Travis Taylor to return to his 18-point form that he had at Monmouth. Despite that, Xavier absolutely needs someone to step up as an interior scoring option. Jeff Robinson has averaged just shy of 11 PPG during his current hot streak, but he is still dependent on Tu and Cheeks penetrating and leaving him the ball rather than making his own buckets on the post. For the Muskies to finish strong, they have to have someone inside to whom they can throw the ball that is going to elicit a reaction other than laughter from the opponent.

-Get out and go. One way to take pressure off of Lyons and Holloway is to get Dez Wells back involved in the offense. He is most effective as a player in the open court and - as we have harped on here - he is not the only Muskie with the ability to push the pace. Charlotte is a good defensive team when given the chance to get back and get into position; Xavier should not afford them that opportunity on Saturday.

-Show some fortitude. There was a time that Xavier teams were defined by their defensive intensity and general grittiness. They were not the most talented teams in the country - or in most cases even as talented as this year's iteration - but they weren't going to give up anything easy. A lot of those teams didn't go very far in the tournament; some of them didn't make it at all. They were a whole lot of fun to watch, though, and no fun to play. Very little is as frustrating to a fan as watching a talented team squander a chance at greatness by not living up to its potential. This year's Xavier team has a whole lot of talent; it's time to step up to the plate at start doing the little things that make decent teams good and good teams great.

Bottom line:
The string has run out on the Muskies' chances at greatness, barring a wholly unexpected run. It's time for the team to reset, dig in, and start focusing on doing what it takes to secure one of the first-round byes in the Atlantic 10 tournament. The conference title is up for grabs at this point, but Xavier is going to need some help to get there. More importantly, Xavier has to get right and get ready for March - assuming that month is going to matter. Conference road games are never easy, and the gap between Xavier and Charlotte is not as large as the Muskie faithful have become accustomed to it being. One game at a time is the only way X is going to get better; a win at Charlotte is frankly the only acceptable outcome if X still harbors hopes for this season.