What a difference a couple of weeks can make. Back when I was writing and then publishing the preview for Xavier's non-conference season, this game was looking like a toss-up. There were questions about how well Xavier's young back court could run the team and if Dee Davis was going to be suitable as anything other than a defensive menace for spurts off the bench. The Colonials were coming off a 26-11 season and returning just about every player of interest from that squad. Ken Pomeroy was giving X a 53% chance of winning, likely on the strength of being the hosts.
Now the Muskies are a rolling, undefeated team, coming off the buzz of dismantling ostensible rival Butler on Tuesday. Justin Martin has been starting at the two, Dee Davis has been looking as composed as possible, and he and Semaj Christon are both on pace to challenge for the school's single-season assists record. Meanwhile, Robert Morris has staggered to a 1-2 start with losses to Rider and Lehigh coming before a whipping of Fordham. Suddenly all the question marks seem to be on the side of Robert Morris.
RMU's problems have begun with a woeful inability to put the biscuit in the basket. They are shooting a deplorable .325/.229/.780 as a team; their three-point shooting is 289th in the nation and their two-point shooting is 281st. Their mark from the line is obviously very respectable. Compounding the problem is their 22.9% TO rate. Only their OReb% has been sparing their blushes, as they run down 35.5% of their own misses.
Defensively, things are much the same. They can't force turnovers and teams are posting a 54.8% EFG% against them. The boards are once against their saving grace, as they are in the top 50 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. They also block 13.5% of opponents' two-point attempts, good for 62nd in the country.
Senior point guard Velton Jones leads the way in scoring and assists for RMU, putting up 12.7/2.0/5.0 per game but getting there on a .286/.250/.792 shooting line. Jones has been more a volume scorer than a sharpshooter throughout his career, and that trend certainly has continued this season. Jones is averaging two steals per game this season.
Coron Williams plays the two for Robert Morris and is good for 7.3/2.7/0.3 per game on this young season. His shooting line of .350/.375/.500 somewhat masks the fact that he's probably the best shooter on this Robert Morris team. He has hit over 40% of his threes each of the last two years and spends most of his time looking for opportunities to lift from deep. Neither Williams nor Jones, however, will be afforded the same respect from beyond the arc that the Butler guards were on Tuesday.
Six-foot-five sophomore swingman Lucky Jones was something of a breakout player as a freshman last season, leading the team in rebounding as a freshman. Jones is averaging 10.0/5.7/0.7 on .310/.250/.813 shooting. He averaged nearly three offensive rebounds per game last season but only has two in three games this year. That's not the kind of development you want to see in a young player.
Forward Vaughn Morgan is something less than an offensive force for Robert Morris. The 6'6" junior has shot ten times in the Colonials three games and averages 4.7/3.7/0.0 on .600/.000/.500 shooting. That's not to say he doesn't have an impact on the game, though. Despite playing only 20 minutes per game, he has grabbed eight offensive boards on the year and is averaging three blocks per game. Of course, he has also contrived to turn the ball over eight times without picking up an assist.
Mike McFadden rounds out the starting five for RMU. The 6'8" junior is leading the team in rebounding, going for 8.0/6.7/0.0 and averaging two steals per game. Of players who have shot more than ten times, his 41.2% mark from the floor leads the team, as does his 83.3% from the line. The fact that a 6'8" power forward with zero three-point attempts in his college career is only making 41% of FGA is no doubt a cause for concern among the Colonial faithful.
The team's second-leading scorer is guard Karvel Anderson, a JuCo transfer in his first season at the D-1 level. He is going for a respectable 10.7/4.0/1.3 line, but the fact that he's getting there shooting .333/.176/.778 is not helping the Robert Morris cause. The last thing this team needs right now is another volume shooter. Backup guard Anthony Myers-Pate is getting 4 PPG (and 4 RPG despite being 5'11") but is an abysmal 4-23 shooting, including 1-13 from behind the arc. Someone needs to tell these guys to find better shots, beginning next week.
The only other interesting reserve is 6'9" freshman forward Stephan Hawkins. Despite only playing 15 minutes per game, he's averaging 4.0 and 6.3. Ten of his nineteen rebounds this season have come on the offensive end.
-How deep is Xavier? In the track meet win over Fairleigh Dickinson, Xavier got seven players into double figures in scoring and did so fairly effortlessly. Things tightened up a bit against Butler, where the Musketeers played only seven players for more than a minute. There are going to be games this year where Xavier needs to go more than seven deep, and that is going to depend largely on the viability of James Farr and the flexibility of Justin Martin. Both of those players have another chance to shine here before Xavier hits the road.
-Is Jeff Robinson for real? This is a question that has been on the minds of Xavier fans off and on for the better part of three years. Robinson looked dynamic against Fairleigh Dickinson and Butler. Robert Morris has rebounded well over their first three games; if Robinson can make hay on the glass and more than hold his own in the paint on Saturday, it might go a long way towards making his doubters believe. Or maybe not.
-How soon can Semaj Christon get up to speed? Christon played 27 minutes but only shot twice against Butler. He made an impact on the game with his eight assists, but they came along with five turnovers. Christon is going to be a big part of Xavier's plans this season; the sooner he adjusts to the tempo of the college game - to say nothing of becoming fully healthy - the better for the Musketeers.
-Control the boards. Robert Morris misses a ton of shots, there's no way around that. In their victory over Fordham on the 13th, they outrebounded the Rams by nine, including by four on the offensive end. Even in their losses, Robert Morris has held a solid advantage on the glass. Limiting the Colonials on the glass will do a lot to help Xavier keep them in check.
-Force the tempo. Robert Morris is undefeated in games consisting of fewer than 70 possessions, albeit only three games into the season. Getting the ball out and going is not part of the RMU game plan, especially against a team like Xavier. The Colonials want to shrink the game by making possessions take longer; Xavier would be well served to push the pace.
-Lift. Right now, Xavier has the best effective field goal percentage in the country. Robert Morris has been fairly miserable at defending shots of any sort this season, and Xavier is a good shooting team. Martin and Redford have flashed smooth strokes, and Dee Davis has shot the ball well from deep. Jeff Robinson has a decent mid-range game, and he along with Taylor and Stenger have been the benficiary of some nifty ball movement by the Muskies. X can shoot the ball and Robert Morris can't play defense; there's no reason for the Musketeers to get shy tomorrow.
Bottom line: Xavier is off to a good start and the Colonials are off to a bad one, but that doesn't put this game in the bag just yet. Robert Morris is a veteran team with a solid coach, and they'll turn things around sooner or later. In their last game before heading out west, X needs to get out of the blocks well and put this game to bed. If they execute well, the Muskies will leave the weekend with a 3-0 record.