Xavier's game against Temple was a borderline must-win; only the fact that Temple is playing so well this year kept the game from achieving that status. The same cannot be said of the upcoming contest with Dayton; the Flyers have been in an even worse tailspin than X, and a loss to a team of that caliber would be a devastating black mark on Xavier's resume. With the team already hovering between the 12-seed/First Four range and "see you in the NIT!" in most mock brackets, one more bad loss may well equal one bad loss too many for Xavier's already shaky at-large hopes.
As an aside, can you imagine how much Xavier does not want to be in that First Four? Assuming UD doesn't make the tournament - which they won't unless they win the Atlantic Ten's automatic bid - the place will be packed to the rafter with disgruntled Flyers fans looking for an outlet to their rage. Meanwhile, they team they love to hate the very most will come in, staggered from its lofty perch atop the A-10. Other than playing at UC and maybe a pivotal conference game at UD, I can't imagine a more hostile environment for Xavier. I would envy the other potential 12-seed in that matchup, as they found themselves in front of a "neutral" crowd that was 80% in support of them.
There's a lot of ground to cover until that point, though, and the first step is Dayton's visit to the Cintas Center Saturday night. Those of you who pay attention at all to the things that go on around you may recall that Dayton ran Xavier out of the gym when the teams last met a month ago at UD. Unwilling to provide Xavier with the solace of a "good" loss, Dayton subsequently dropped its next four games to fall to the wrong side of the bubble and out of reasonable contention for a regular season conference title. The Flyers are looking more and more like a team to which Xavier should not have lost, and the Muskies can't afford to make that mistake again.
You've already read our look at the Flyers from last game (haven't you?), so I'm not going to break down the team again. You know who Dayton is at this point. In conference, Dayton's incredible offensive efficiency has masked a defense that has been downright awful. Offensively, they're the best in the conference on the glass by pulling down 39.6% of their own misses, and they also lead the way with a sterling 79.7% success rate from the free throw line. They take 33.3% of their shots from beyond the arc, which is the second-highest rate in the conference.
Defensively, they've been rubbish. They can't force turnovers (16.4%, 13th) or bad shots (opponents' EFG 52.4%, 13th) and they don't block shots or get steals at an even average clip. They do manage to force teams to play inside the arc as well as outside, allowing only 27% off opponents' shots to come from deep. They also allow offensive boards on only 30% of opponents' misses, which is a pretty good number.
More to the point, both teams have a huge amount at stake in this game. Right now, both are floating around the bubble in most bracket projections, with Xavier tending to be "in" more so than Dayton. After Saturday night's game, one of these teams is going to need the automatic bid to make it to the NCAA tournament. The other will be left with a resume that may yet merit a second glance. The result of this game will also affect seeding in the Atlantic Ten tournament, and no team who needs the auto bid wants to be faced with a campus site game and then three games in three days between it and the NCAAs. Despite - and in part because of - the relatively poor performances of late from both teams, this game has huge postseason implications.
-What does Coach Mack have up his sleeve? Last time Xavier played Dayton, Coach Mack referred to the result as a "[butt]-whooping." Last time Xavier played at all, Mack called the effort "embarrassing," and Byron Larkin later remarked that Coach Mack was as mad as Larkin has ever seen him during his post-game comments. In those comments, Mack identified a stagnant offense, flat starts, and a lack of veteran players providing leadership as among the problems he saw with the team; zero interior presence and poor defense also had to be featured in his mind. In response to all of this, he closed practices this week to do what he could to get the team ready to go for the pivotal stretch run. Mack has not been without his detractors during this difficult season, and it seems likely that there are those who are ready to pile on Xavier's third-year leader if he can't right the ship in a hurry. I'm of the mind that Mack is the right man for the Xavier job, but the result of this week of practice will go a long way towards demonstrating what kind of coaching chops he has.
-Is Good Cheeks coming back? For much of the season, Mark Lyons was Xavier's leading - and most efficient - scorer. In the past couple of weeks, however, his effort and attitude in practice have landed him in Coach Mack's doghouse. More troublingly, he's putting up a line of 11.0/3.2/3.4 on .305/.211/.750 shooting. Xavier needs to have quality options beyond Tu Holloway, like they did when Lyons was averaging 17 points and hitting 47% of his shots through the first 18 games. It's pointless to speculate on the inner machinations of Lyons' mind, but he needs to find a way to put it behind him and resume being a productive player.
-Can Xavier stop Matt Kavanaugh? Last time these two teams met, Dayton's 6'9" junior center went for 20/9/2 on 8-9/0-0/4-4 shooting and completely assassinated Xavier's interior defense. He was too quick and crafty for Kenny Frease and - at 250 pounds - too beefy for Xavier's other post defense options. In the six games since, he's scored 57 points. Basically, he's gone back to being Matt Kavanaugh. For the Muskies to win on Saturday, they have to be able to control Kavanaugh one-on-one inside so the perimeter players can focus on checking shooters beyond the arc.
-Defend the perimeter. This can't be stressed enough. It comes through in two factors; the first is defense on Kevin Dillard. Xavier managed to make him look like an all-world guard by letting him penetrate at will on his way to 16/3/9 last time out. At least a hand's worth of help for whoever is tasked with keeping Dillard out of the paint will go a long way towards making that task easier. The other is to stay in Dayton's shooters' faces. At UD, the Flyers attacked the hedge on the high ball screen and Xavier ended up giving up fistfuls of free looks at the basket. Dayton fired a mind-boggling 28 threes, hitting 11 of them. If X allows that kind of barrage at Cintas, it's going to be another long day for the Musketeer faithful. Xavier has to tighten up their defensive rotations to avoid clean looks from distance.
-Come out strong. A common theme in Xavier's losses - and some of their wins - has been their struggles to get into the game until their in a double-digit hole. Obviously, that's not going to get it done, especially not against a motivated opponent like UD. The increased ball movement, not settling for 15-footers, and defensive intensity that accompany a Xavier rally need to be present from the offing today. If Xavier comes out sloppy and stagnant on offense or unmotivated on the defensive end, Dayton will stay in the game a lot longer than any Muskie fan is comfortable with.
-Break even on the glass. UD absolutely annihilated Xavier on the boards to the tune of 37-25 at UD. Dayton in one of the best rebounding teams in the conference, and they are able to set themselves up for runs by forcing the other team to go one-and-done at one end while grabbing seconds chances at the basket for themselves at the other. The Muskies can't afford that Saturday night. It's probably a foolish hope to expect Xavier to control the glass tomorrow, but keeping Dayton from grabbing an advantage would go a long way towards slowing down the high-octane Flyers attack.
It's all hands on deck right time for the Musketeers. Xavier's peripheral offensive players (i.e., not Tu or Cheeks) apart from Brad Redford have been strangely passive in big moments of late, but they need to be able to take and make the big shots rather than staring down the basket and then looking around for a guard. There's some debate as to how many more losses Xavier can afford before falling irretrievably off the bubble, but there's no question in anyone's mind that none of those losses can come to Dayton. Xavier simply has to take care of business against the bubble-or-below teams remaining in the conference schedule. On the flip side, Dayton still has everything to play for and nothing to lose at this point. In Xavier's most heated in conference rivalry, expect the best shot both teams have tomorrow night. From here on out, they're all huge for Xavier.