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Xavier v. Saint Louis: Preview

The last time Xavier played Saint Louis, the Muskies were coming off of an embarrassing loss to UD on the road. That was Xavier's first conference loss in 17 days and, at the time, they looked like good value to make a run at defending the conference crown. Part of that confidence lay in Xavier's ability to defend the Cintas Center in conference, where home losses had largely become a thing of the past for the Muskies. Then the Billikens came in, matched X blow for blow, and left with a five-point win that shook the foundations upon which the Xavier faithful built their hopes.

This time around, Xavier is heading to the home of Nelly, Ali, and the rest of the St. Lunatics is desperate need of a big road win for their postseason resume. As if Xavier's tenuous hold on the hope for at-large entrance to the Big Dance isn't enough, they also hold a mere half-game lead over St. Joseph's in the race for the final first-round bye in the A-10 tournament, with Dayton and UMass lurking just a half game back of the Hawks. As regular-season games go in the Atlantic Ten, they don't get much more high-leverage than this one.

Since these teams met, Saint Louis has dropped road games against UMass (which isn't that bad of a loss) and URI (which is). Between those, the Billikens have won with big offensive explosions (86-62 over St. Bonnie), defensive lockdowns (58-50 over UD, 59-51 at La Salle), and easy home wins over Richmond and Fordham by a total of 36 points. That hiccup against Rhode Island probably cost the team a shot at splitting the A-10 title with Temple, but SLU is cruising towards a first round bye in the conference tournament and has a pretty good grasp on an at-large bid.

Check our preview of the previous Xavier v Saint Lou game for a deeper look at the player-by-player breakdown of the Billikens. In the conference season, Saint Louis' defense has been the hallmark of their success. They smother opponents everywhere, allowing an EFG% of 45.6% while forcing turnovers on 23.8% of opponents' possessions. The Billikens' foes only shoot 32% from behind the arc and are only taking 26% of their shots from deep. The Billikens are also stealing the ball on 12.4% of their opponents' possessions and allowing offensive rebounds on only 30% of opponents' missed shots. Saint Louis takes away as many possessions from the offense as they can and does an excellent job at not giving any back.

On their own offensive ends, the Billikens play at an extremely slow 64 possessions per game. They are a barely average shooting team, shooting 47.6% from inside the arc and 33.3% from beyond it. Most of their offensive firepower comes from two places: first, they get up a ton of threes, with a little over 35% of their FGA coming from deep. Second, they get good value from their possessions. They only turn the ball over on 18% of their trips down the court, and they grab offensive boards on 34.3% of their own misses.

Xavier's previous game against Saint Louis is instructive in seeing what needs to change this time around, but URI's recent two-point victory over the also shows some information on how to approach the upcoming game. The Rams clubbed Saint Lou on the glass (39-31) and only turned the ball over 9 times. In Xavier's game against the Billikens, X broke even on the boards but turned the ball over 17 times, including 6 by Mark Lyons alone. Other than that, URI stayed out of foul trouble (nine all game), protected the rim (seven blocks), and caught the Billikens on a bad shooting night (.361/.345/.800). So what is the prognosis for this next game in a series of must-wins for X?

Three questions:
-Where the heck is Mark Lyons?
Setting aside his aforementioned six turnovers for a moment, Mark Lyons kept X in the game against Saint Louis with a 27-point explosion on 7-12/5-6/8-8 shooting. That iteration of Lyons has been largely absent from the Xavier attack of late, leaving a hole where the team's second perimeter half court scorer should be. Dez Wells and Brad Redford can combine to do all of the things that Mark Lyons does when he's at his best, but having a motivated and clicking Cheeks in the back court helps keep Xavier's offense from being limited outside of the full court setting. Lyons needs to get the life back in his game for Xavier to be too much of a threat heading into a hostile arena against an elite defense.

-Can Xavier stop Rob Loe? It's no secret that the Muskies are the weakest team in the Atlantic Ten - and perhaps even the nation - when it comes to defending a power forward with a jump shot. Loe went for 14 and 8 against X earlier in the year despite being limited by four fouls. Xavier's rotations coming off the high ball screen make their defense too easy to gut with two quick passes as the big men scramble to get back into position. Praying Loe has an off night isn't a viable strategy for X; they have to find a way to get into his shooting space and eliminate his clean looks before he posts another career game against them.

-Will Dez Wells be a factor? It's also no secret that Xavier's high flying man child of a freshman finds an up-tempo game vastly more enjoyable. Last time out against SLU, he was limited to 0/4/2 on 0-3/0-1/0-0 shooting and picked up 4 fouls in 24 minutes. Wells has shown the ability to pick his moments as a spot-up jump shooter this year (16-41 from three-point range), but his go-to offensive move still consists of getting as close to the rim as he can off the bounce and then jumping higher than the rest of the people on the floor can for a floater/layup/dunk. With Lyons unlikely to go for 27 again, Xavier is going to need something out of Dez in a game that does not suit him at all.

Three keys:
-Feed Big Kenny.
I know all the reasons to think Frease's night of glory on Saturday was a function of Richmond's limitations more than Kenny's sudden aptitude, but I think there is potential for a repeat performance against Saint Louis. Rob Loe is 6'11" and a suitable shot blocker, but he averages about 15 minutes per game. Aside from him, SLU has nobody who stands over 6'8". The Billikens also prefer - and force - a slower tempo, which neutralizes some of Xavier's other scoring preferences. The guards continued to target Big Kenny against Richmond despite some early hiccups, and he responded with his most complete game since UC. In a situation that calls for a similar effort, Xavier would do well to get the senior big man involved early and keep him engaged until the final horn.

-Protect the basketball.
Saint Louis loves to force empty trips down the floor, and nothing gets a home crowd going like a several-possession run where their team scores and the other on doesn't. This is about more than turnovers for X; the Muskies also have to avoid settling for contested 17-footers and attempted finishes in a crowded lane. To avoid a potentially crippling offensive drought in the slow-paced game that seems sure to develop, X has to value every possession and work to get high-value looks rather than dribbling about the perimeter aimlessly and then forcing something up.

-Win the rebounding battle. Possessions only end once the defense secures the basketball. Xavier is not a team that forces many turnovers as a general rule, and the Muskies can ill afford to give up second-chance points on Tuesday. Saint Lou grabbed eight offensive boards at Cintas, enabling them to extend their own possessions and keep Xavier's fast-breaking offense penned into its own end. It's hard to point to too many areas in the half court where Xavier has a large advantage over the Billikens, so being able to bring the whole court into play naturally favors the Muskies. The first step in that process is winning on the glass.

Bottom line:
Since Xavier dropped the game at Temple in lackluster fashion 17 days ago, intelligence X fans have had this game circled as the team's last shot at a win upon which the selection committee will look favorably. After charging out and then staggering to the finish line against Richmond, Xavier absolutely has to have a top class performance on Tuesday against Saint Louis. The Billikens have had the better season and are defending their home court, but X comes in as the team with the most to lose. Some of the most fondly remembered Musketeer teams of the past have excelled from that position; if this team wants to put a banner in the rafters at Cintas, they're going to have to do the same.