With Xavier playing over the weekend and the entirety of the Banners staff being in one living room, the need for massaging back and forth about non game related things went out the window. Now, with a lull in games and the post-Thanksgiving diaspora having taken place, we're back with a Tuesday edition of Sunday Conversation.
Joel: I know you're probably still in bed snuggling Captain Morgan [ed note. I was not, but Joel feels superior because he wakes up early] but I'm going to get the conversation started with this: Coach Mack picked up a tech in the Pacific game. Pacific converted both FT and scored on the ensuing possession. We lost by three. With all the obvious caveats about changing one event in the past in a vacuum, this team is that technical from being 6-0. That's a superficially absurd assertion, but it's still a lot better than I was afraid things might be at this point.
Brad: That's true, but that loss against Pacific is a bad one. The win over Drake isn't a whole lot better. We've played one decent team (Butler) and we beat them. Do you feel confident we could do it again though? This is a very soft 5-1. I'll grant you can only beat who is in front of you, but I could do with us beating those people a little more convincingly.
Joel: "Hi, I'm Brad, and I'm here to wipe that smile right off your face!" Even if it's a soft 5-1, it's better than an honest 3-3. I think we could beat Butler again. We had a good game plan against them, and we executed it. How about my boy JRob?
Brad: That's the optimistic way to look at it. If we had a solid game plan and executed it against Butler, what happened against Pacific, or RMU, or Drake? We should win those games far more handily than we did (or, in the case of Pacific, didn't). I'll say this, we looked like we came alive a bit in the second half yesterday. Maybe this team responds to getting chewed on a bit at halftime. We didn't exactly slam the door closed at the end, but that happens with a young team. And I'm not here to talk about Jeff Robinson.
Joel: It all happens with a young team. Take a bunch of 19 year olds on a road trip from Cinci to Anaheim, line them up against a team they think they should trounce in an event they might find meaningless, and expect them to have laser focus? Sometimes things happen. I know it's Coach Mack's job to not let them happen, but some of it is one the players, too. After that blip, though, they refocused and got two wins. They would have beaten Drake by more but for that unlikely barrage of insanely deep threes. Do you want them contesting hard 25 feet from the basket in that situation? I don't. If the opponent hits it, tip your hat and hit your free throws, which is exactly what they did. If that dude doesn't hit the last one with .1 seconds remaining, X wins by seven, which was just what KenPom called.
Brad: Drake made some shots, but they are a bad team. Their only win prior to Rice (248 in KenPom if I recall correctly) was against a DII team. Yes, they made some deep threes, but we should beat them by more than seven. If we are only seven points better than Drake, you can kiss meaningful postseason goodbye. Or maybe you can write Drake in, I'm not sure which, actually. What I did like was that we didn't fold under the threes. We made free throws and brought the game home.
Purdue isn't anything all that special either, but I would feel much better if we beat them. Part of what is concerning me is that our bigs seem disinclined to assert themselves on a game. Taylor absolutely wilted in front of Clarke yesterday, if he shows for Purdue, I'd be happy.
Joel: After that win, KenPom has us as 85th in the nation, which feels about right. The Massey Ratings have us 73rd, which I'd take. Basically, I feel like this team is a peripheral NCAA tournament candidate. It's going to come down to getting hot at the right time. We close the season with VCU, Memphis, UMass, Saint Lou, and @Butler. The time to make hay is now. The rest of the non-conference season (except Memphis in February) is @Purdue, Vandy, Kent State, UC (neutral), Wofford, @Tennessee, @Wake.
Win two of Purdue/UC/UT and sweep the rest and we're talking the start of an improbable bid for an NCAA appearance. Win one of them and we're still in that "get hot at the right time" zone of maybe sneaking in. Drop all three or any of the other games and they are who you think they are. As you so astutely pointed out, this is still a team that hasn't faced a single decent opponent or truly hostile environment.
Brad: Winning two of those games is a big ask, but not as big as sweeping the rest of them. Vandy and KSU both worry me a bit. It is nice to have the chance for some good wins in conference. VCU, Butler, UMass, Temple, Saint Louis, and St. Joe's could all help.
It really hinges, I think, on Travis Taylor. If he is even mediocre against Drexel or Drake, we run away and hide. He wasn't though. When he is clicking, we have a true post scorer to compliment our bevy of guards and whatever JMart is.
Joel: Vandy held Marist to 50... and lost by 17. You don't do that unless you're well and truly bad at basketball. If we can't beat them and Kent State at home, we're in trouble. If Xavier can go 5-2 or 6-1 (which is a very tall order), they'd be sitting on 10 or 11 wins heading into conference play. Assuming we lose at Memphis (who are suddenly looking a bit shaky in their own right), that leaves us needing to go 8-8 or 9-7 and pick up a first-round win in the A10 tournament to get to 20 wins. That's not out of the question. It likely leaves us the wrong side of the bubble, but it would be a monumental achievement for this squad.
Brad: Say that happens, do you think Coach Mack will get more plaudits for working a miracle, or be pilloried for missing the tournament? Reading message boards and other sites out there leaves me concerned that some people expect another relatively easy bid.
Joel: I think there will always be a segment of the fan base that thinks Mack isn't doing enough and another section that thinks the sun shines from his bottom. If Xavier misses the tournament, there will be a hue and cry from people who follow casually and think we make it there by birthright. Realistically, though, this isn't a tournament team.
What do you see as the main correctable issues X needs to address before the conference season begins?
Brad: Feeding the post. We absolutely have to establish some sort of inside threat. We aren't going to shoot 41.3% from deep all year long (I don't think) so we need other ways to put up some points. That and we need to start forcing pace.
Joel: I think ball security at the point is our number one priority. We're actually 53rd in the nation in TO% as a team, but that is artificially inflated because Taylor, Martin, Robinson, and Redford are all protecting the ball at elite rates. Unless you think those guys have all turned into Jordan Taylor, we need to stop sharting away possessions from our guard positions. Davis and Christon both have TO% around 25%; they need to get those down under 20% for this offense to avoid grinding to a halt.
The other priority is defense. Right now, our defense is in the top 50 in rebounding percentage and not sending other teams to the line. Those are the only things keeping us average on that end. We're below average at 2P% defense and between bad and awful at forcing turnovers, 3P% defense, 3P attempt defense, and blocking shots. I think Coach Mack is trying to get this team to choke out the middle, own the boards, and force teams to score from deep. That's working to an extent, but we need to get better at pressuring shooters, because we're getting killed from behind the arc. Only 11 teams give up a higher percentage of their points off of the three.