In a conversation with Shannon Russell late last week, Joe Lunardi speculated that Xavier can't afford any more bad losses if the team wants to hold onto its tenuous claim to an at-large bid. The Musketeers are showing up in a lot of "First Four In" or "Last Four Byes" lists right now, which is business as usual for Xavier, in a sense. What is not is the manner in which the team got there. Rather than emerging as the season goes on, this team has been acclaimed early and reviled more recently. The month of February is traditionally where Xavier makes its move. If the team can get through the murderous slate of at George Washington, at Memphis, Rhode Island, at Temple, Dayton, at current conference leader UMass, Richmond, Saint Louis with a record no worse than 7-2 on the month, Xavier will be sitting pretty. Anything less than that will leave X planted securely on the bubble.
The first hurdle in this least desirable of months in the George Washington Colonials. GW is 8-13 this year and is carrying a 3-4 record in conference play. They've lost to good teams (at Cal by 27, at Syracuse by 35, at Saint Louis by 22, at Harvard by 21) and to bad (Bradley by 1, James Madison by 5, at Fordham by 5) in compiling those losses in and out of Atlantic Ten play. Their best win is probably their defeat of Richmond by 18 at home. Mostly, though, the news has been repetitive and bad for those hardy souls who follow Colonial basketball.
Perhaps in an effort to keep things from being any uglier than they have to, George Washington plays at an extremely slow pace. Their adjusted tempo is just a touch below 65 possessions per game, which is in the slowest 60 teams in the country. Owing to this pace, they only turn the ball over on about 20% of their possessions, which is near as makes no difference national average. When they do get around to shooting, it's nothing to write home about. Their 34.5% mark from three is actually about national average, but their 44.3% from inside the arc is 281st in the nation, and they clock in at 280th in free throw percentage at 65%. They're also 329th in the country in getting to the line. Despite their relative success from deep, only 22.7% of GW's shot attempts are from behind the arc. Only six teams in the country lift from deep less often.
The saving grace of the Colonials' offense - if they have one - is their ability to get to the offensive glass. They rebound 35.7% of their own misses, good for 59th in the country. They're as bad on the other end as they are good on offense, though; they allow opponents to grab 35.6% of their misses. They also allow teams to shoot 48% from inside the arc (which is average) and 36% from beyond it (which is bad, defensively speaking). Forcing turnovers is the biggest success story on the GW defense; they rank 68th in the nation by forcing a TO in 23% of opponents' possessions.
Six-foot-one senior Tony Taylor leads the GW attack with 13.3/2.8/4.3 on .413/.369/.765 shooting. He's also second on the team in steals with 1.5 per game. As you would expect from a guy who leads his team in both points, assists, and turnovers - as Taylor does - he spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands. He has a usage rate of 24.1%, meaning almost a quarter of all GW possessions with him on the floor terminate with Taylor as the final Colonial to touch the ball. He also leads the team in 3P% among players with more than two attempts and is second in three-point baskets made.
Leading the team in usage rate, however, is 6'5" swingman Lasan Kromah. It's easy to see why he uses so many possessions just by glancing at his line; you don't get to 10.7/5.3/2.6 on .387/.317/.633 without burning through a lot of possessions. He also turns the ball over 2.5 times per game for good measure. Kromah is an active defender, getting a steal on 4% of opponents' possessions and averaging 1.9 steals per game. That effort doesn't make up for all the possessions he leaves on the floor with his profligate shooting and cavalier approach to ball security.
I suppose it's worth noting at this point that GW has been featuring a G-G-F-F-F lineup with Kromah as one of the guards. This gives the Colonials a lot of height on the floor at any given time; they rank 35th in the country with an effective height of +2.4". the 6'8" Nemanja Mikic is one of the starting forwards, but he spends a lot of his time outside of the lane. He goes for 8.3/2.7/0.7 on .388/.356/.609 shooting. He leads the team in three-point makes (36) and attempts (101) and - as you can see by his rebounding numbers, plays the typical Euro forward style. Despite his relatively pedestrian numbers, Mikic could be the key to this game for George Washington. He has the same kind of flexible four-man skills that have been gutting Xavier lately. Shutting down Mikic could be a big key to Wednesday's game.
Not so with 6'10" Jabari Edwards. Edwards doesn't do a lot of scoring (3.7 per game) but is an adequate rebounder (4.1 RPG) in his 21 minutes on the floor. His main role within the team is to guard the rim, which his does quite well. The senior from Brooklyn turns away 1.7 shots per game, 8.7% of all two-point efforts while he's on the court. His usage rate is low enough for kenpom.com to dub him "nearly invisible" on the offensive end, but such is not the case on defense.
John Kopriva rounds out the usual starting five, featuring in the starting lineup in 17 of GW's 21 games despite averaging only 16 minutes per and a game line of 3.4/2.5/0.4. The 6'8" freshman doesn't take a lot of shots, which is good, because he's shooting .444/.000/.381 on the year. That's right, he hits 38.1% of his free throws. Obviously, that's not good.
Coach Mike Lonergan gets 33.5% of his team's minutes from the pine, a number that is good for 117th in the nation. Up until recently, the leading man off the bench had been 6'8" junior forward David Pellom. Pellom averages 8.8/4.7/1.0 on .651/.500/.559 shooting. He averages 24.9 minutes per game, which is third on the team. He has a nagging left knee injury that has kept him out for the past two games. Word is that Pellom will again be in street clothes for the Xavier game, which will be a serious blow to George Washington.
Farther towards the water boys and graduate assistants is reserve guard Bryan Bynes. He grabs 18 minutes per game and puts up 4.4/1.8/1.5. His A:TO is barely over one and his shooting line is .316/.286/.739; there's a reason Taylor and Kromah are first and second on the team in minutes. Dwayne Smith gets about 14 minutes of run per game at the 3, averaging 4.4/3.4/0.5 on a shooting line of .410/.500/.548. GW carries no other noteworthy reserves.
-Can Dezmine Wells assert himself in a half-court game? Dez put up a good line in last week's game against Charlotte, but six of his points came in a quick burst, and four of those were on stick backs. There's no shame in either of those ways of scoring, but you can't draw up an offensive set that is geared towards getting offensive rebounds for your small forward. It's great that Dez is able to get his points by that kind of effort - it certainly beats his no-shows against Dayton and Saint Lou - but Xavier could use a reliable third scorer in a situation other than a run out if the team is going to keep pressure off Tu and Cheeks. It remains to be seen if Dez is that guy.
-Who is the team's best four? With five consecutive double-figure scoring games and a consistent effort on the offensive glass, Jeff Robinson blitzed up the depth chart. When he was finally rewarded with the start against Charlotte, he promptly went for two points and two boards with four fouls. Travis Taylor is athletic and a good rebounder, but is prone to an inability to finish and troubling mental lapses at both ends of the court. Andre Walker is versatile and understated, but he could use to become a little less understated than he has been of late. The difference between having depth and just a bunch of mediocre is often not as large as we would hope. Someone needs to step up at the four for Xavier.
-Can Kenny Frease stay in a game? Just when he was really ratcheting up the frustration level of Xavier fans, Kenny Frease responded with one of his better performances of the year. He stayed out of foul trouble, stayed in front of Braswell, and was opportunistic on the offensive end. Tu and Cheeks became more disinclined to feed the post as the game got tighter, and Big Kenny's ending line was not as good as it could have been. This question cuts both ways: Frease has to stay out of foul trouble and convert his chances; if he does that, Holloway and Lyons need to continue to let the big dog feed. To see Xavier effectively work inside-out throughout the course of the game - and especially down the stretch - would be a good sign for Xavier fans.
-Don't be sloppy. Xavier absolutely has to take care of business against the weaker teams in the league. URI's win over UD Saturday should serve notice that nothing can be taken for granted in the Atlantic 10 this season. Furthermore, the Muskies are about one bad loss away from needing the league's automatic bid to get into the tournament. Xavier has done well taking care of the ball lately, but they still need to shore up their team rebounding. Execution at the free-throw line has to improve as well; outside of Tu and Cheeks, the team is shooting 54% from the stripe.
-Feed the high post. George Washington plays some man, but they're also not at all hesitant to go into a 1-3-1 zone to throw opponents off. The Colonials' size can choke off driving lanes and make an offense stagnate, but a composed player with good court vision can crack a 1-3-1 from the high post with ease. Andre Walker seems to fit the bill for Xavier, and this could well be an opportunity for him to give himself a leg up in the chase for minutes at the four. If Xavier can get the ball to the high post with shooters on the wings and Big Kenny, Travis Taylor, or Jeff Robinson waiting down low when GW goes zone, the world is their oyster from that point.
-Play a full 40 minutes of defense. Javarris Barnett had the shooting night of his life for Charlotte on Saturday, and the 49ers added another 20 points from the free-throw stripe. Xavier's defensive effort probably wasn't as bad as the score line made it look, but it also wasn't as good as the Muskies can be. There are half a dozen games coming up in this pivotal month that are going to require Xavier's absolute best effort on both ends of the court. Knowing that the defense that sparked the Muskies' rallies early in the season is still there to be called upon would be a big time boost for the team (and the fans).
George Washington is not as good as Xavier this year. I'm glad we could get that out of the way. Despite that, this game is fraught with potential disaster as a classic trap game with Memphis looming at the weekend. Xavier simply can't afford any more bad losses at this point in the season. With the Atlantic 10 and (hopefully) NCAA tournaments fast approaching, every game has the air of potential elimination for Xavier. It's time for the team to batten down the hatches and play each game as though the tournament is in the balance. We've seen this squad play with that kind of intensity and focus, and they can run with just about anyone in the country in that state. It's high time they found that mood again, and it starts with getting the road kill on Wednesday.