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Xavier v. Rhode Island: Preview

A lot can happen in five weeks. There are (roughly) five weeks spanning between now and Selection Sunday. Five weeks ago, the New York Giants we struggling to fight off the .500 mark, and their participation in the postseason was by no means assured. They started winning and didn't stop, and now they're Super Bowl Champions, at least until next season starts. Xavier is in similarly desperate straits, and - after the missed opportunity at Memphis - definitely needs to rip off a string of victories. After two weeks between games at the Cintas Center, coming home is a good start. So is playing Rhode Island.

On the surface, URI is just the kind of team Xavier wants to see right now. The Rams are currently 5-19 and 207 in Atlantic Ten play. Outside of the conference, their best win is Hofstra. James Madison and a double-OT thriller at Boston College are the only two other victories they claimed before opening the conference slate, and they didn't acquit themselves particularly well in any of their losses. A-10 wins at UD and against UMass at home are far and away their best results of the year. Other than that, it's been all 32-point losses at Georgia State and home defeats against Maine.

As you might imagine of a team that has put up a 5-19 record, Rhode Island does a lot of things fairly poorly. The one thing they do quite well, however, is get to the offensive glass. They rebound almost 40% of their own misses, good for 11th in the nation. Part of this can be put down to practice, as the Rams certainly put up enough missed shots. They shoot a very bad 46.2% from inside the arc as a team (232nd in the nation) and an abysmal 28% (335th in the nation) from beyond the arc. You can't get many offensive boards from free throws, but they shoot 67.4% from the line, which is "good" for 223rd in the country. To cap off their offensive struggles, they turn the ball over on almost 22% of their possessions, which is worse than 241 D-1 teams.

Defensively, the Rams block 11% of their opponents' shots, which puts them in the top 100 of the country. They are exactly average at defending the glass, allowing opponents to grab 32.3% of their own misses. Other than that, they're bad at defense. Teams shoot 35.5% from deep and a stunning 55.1% from inside the arc. That two-point percentage defense is 337th out of the 345 teams in the country. Coach Jim Baron's club is also really bad at forcing turnovers, forcing the opponent to cough it up on only 19.6% percent of their possessions.

Starters:
Volume shooter Jamal Wilson was leading the team in scoring with 16.4 PPG, but he was dismissed from the team in December to make room for the coach's kid because of a violation of team rules. Coming eligible a game later was Virginia transfer Billy Baron, a sophomore guard who also happens to be coach Jim Baron's son. Baron now leads the team in scoring with a line of 13.5/4.6/2.5 on .417/.343/.820. He's not an exceptionally efficient shooter, but he gets to the line fairly well, and his shooting line is at least an upgrade from Wilson's .392/.267/.828. Thirty-four minutes and 14 shots per game disappeared with Wilson's dismissal, and Baron stepped in to take 32 of the minutes and 10 of the shots.

Freshman guard Mike Powell is Baron's backcourt mate. He puts up 8.9/3.3/3.8 on a morbid .353/.308/.709 shooting line. Despite being tasked with a good portion of the ball handling responsibilities, he is somewhat loose with the rock. He turns it over 3.3 times per game and has an A:TO just over the break-even mark. It's also worth nothing that he's only 5'11", 175. Xavier's guards don't have the size advantage over many of their opponents, but they'll have it Wednesday night against Powell.

If anyone on the Rams fits the profile of the flex forward who has been killing Xavier this season, it's Nikola Malesevic. The 6'7" junior from Serbia never met a shot he didn't like and shoots .398/.324/.697 on his way to 12.3/2.8/1.2. He is capable of blowing up for huge numbers, as he did when he posted 22 on 6-11/3-6/7-9 against Texas or when he got 23 on 7-14/1-3/8-8 against Va Tech. He doesn't let a little thing like an off shooting night slow him down, either; he went 7-21/4-14/1-3 shooting against Maine, for instance, and took 20 shots to get his 19 points against UMass. Despite that, a hot hand from Malesevic is just the kind of thing Xavier could have trouble stopping.

Senior forward Orion Outerbridge sports one of the best names in the Atlantic Ten, and the 6'9" forward backs it up with 11.8/7.0/0.4 per game. He shoots .421/.273/.662 and is frankly proving himself to not be a credible threat from deep. He is, however, a hoss on the boards, grabbing 9.8% of his team's misses and 17.6% of opponents' misses when on the floor, both of which put him in the top 10% of players in the country. He takes care of the ball very well for a big man, averaging only 1.5 TO per game. He also gets into the mix on defense, blocking 1.9 shots per game.

Freshman Jonathan Holton rounds out the starting five (or starting V, for our soccer fans) for URI. He is a monster in the paint, standing 6'9", 220 and averaging 10.6/8.2/1.1 with 1.2 blocks per game. He shoots .443/.188/.662 and has attempted 69 threes despite making just 13 of them. Closer to the bucket, as previously discussed, he is far more effective. He grabs 11.9% of his team's misses and 21.7% of his opponents' misses while on the court, which adds up to being a dominant rebounding presence.

Bench:
Rhode Island is a young and deep team, with each player averaging barely more than a year's worth of collegiate experience and 36% of their minutes coming from off the pine. Six-foot-six wing Andre Malone is usually the first man off the bench for Coach Baron, and he grabs 23.5 minutes per game. He gets 9.3 points per game mostly by shooting a ton; a .369/.271/.444 shooting line certainly isn't doing him any favors. Despite averaging less than a point per shot - which is staggeringly awful - he shoots 10 times a game. Why he's allowed to do this is anyone's guess, but keep him in mind next time you want to complain about Coach Mack not restraining Tu and Cheeks. It could be a lot worse.

TJ Buchanan gets another 20 minutes at the guard positions, averaging 3.4/2.3/1.2 on .367/.235/.630 shooting. Despite his somewhat limited minutes, he averages almost a steal per game. Six-foot-seven Dominique McKoy is the first big off the bench, but the efficacy of Outerbridge, Malesevic, and Holton limits him to 13 MPG. He gets 2.8 and 1.7 in his limited time. Levan Shengeli merit mention because he has an interesting name and, at 6'9", 260, is a whole lot of forward.

Three questions:
-Who is going to make good decisions?
Up until the Memphis game, Tu Holloway was the stalwart of mental processes in the Xavier backcourt. His performance at the end of the game was out of character for him to say the least, but it left questions lingering in the minds of the "in Tu we trust" fan base of Xavier. Mark Lyons is an aggressive ball player, and that's always who he is going to be. If the Muskies are going to be able to make things work for the remainder of the season, Holloway has to be able to be relied upon to make the right play with the ball in his hands. There's (hopefully) not any crunch time on the horizon against Rhode Island, but an effort that has Holloway's assists and his field goal attempts about on the same level would go a long way towards reestablishing his steady reputation.

-Has Xavier turned over a new leaf on defense? Coach Mack reached a little bit deeper into the defensive playbook for a 3-2 zone that stymied Memphis for large stretches of the game on Saturday. While he has always spoken of Xavier as a man first team, it might behoove the Musketeers coaching staff to have a few gimmicks in the playbook to shut down the flexible forwards that have hurt them this year and put players in positions more likely to help them succeed. Jeff Robinson, for instance, can be a menace coming from off the ball to contest shots, but tends to get lost in man schemes. Having things in play to help maximize the team's defensive assets may just be what X needs to get over the hump right now.

-Can Xavier put Dez Wells into positions to perform in the half court? Wells was a monster in the Memphis game, where the open nature of play meshed well with his aggressive, athletic style. They tried to run a play for him late, but he got foiled and then travelled. For Xavier to be able to open things up for Tu and Cheeks on the outside, it helps to have the defense worried about the other players on the floor. Proving that Dez can be a menace outside of the fast break would be a step in the right direction for Xavier.

Three keys:
-Take care of business.
This is not a game that Xavier should lose, nor does Rhode Island frankly have any business keeping things close. URI knocked off Dayton and UMass by keeping the game within reach and getting uncharacteristically hot from the floor. Xavier is down but not out right now, but a home-court kidney punch from the Rhode Island Rams would put X squarely in the ranks of teams needing an automatic bid to make the tournament. Xavier needs to beat Rhode Island and do so in a manner that establishes some momentum for the upcoming pivotal trip to Memphis.

-Stay in the post. Big Kenny played well at Memphis, but was relegated to setting the biggest screens on the floor when the game was on the line. It's incumbent upon Xavier's guards to continue to force the ball inside even in crunch time, and it's just as important that the coaching staff make them do so. Kenny Frease has been inconsistent throughout the year, but he is as capable of dominating the paint for stretches as anyone in the A-10. Abandoning that advantage and pulling him 22 feet from the bucket to set ball screens makes Xavier's offense one-dimensional and predictable. Even if he's not taking the shots, his touches in the post force the defense to stay honest.

-Finish the game.
This has been a continuing concern for Xavier, and it was on display again at Memphis. Having everything click for a full 40 minutes is the dream for every college basketball program, but that's a very difficult thing to achieve. Xavier has fallen well short of that on occasions this year, letting worse teams stay close and letting good teams take the lead late on. Rhode Island is not in the latter category by any stretch of the imagination. At home, coming off a brutal loss, with a lesser opponent, Xavier should be ready to establish a lead and then shut the game down.

Bottom line:
Xavier desperately needs every win from here on out. Joe Lunardi flirted with the idea of removing them from his mock bracket over the weekend. Chris Dobbertean has them in his first four out. Drew Cannon's revolutionary prognostication has them still in, but only just. Clearly, Xavier is not in position to be dropping home games to conference also-rans. It's hard to say there's any reason to anticipate Xavier dropping this game, but you could have said the same thing about their games against Dayton and Massachusetts. This is one that Xavier can't afford to let slip. If the team wants to be in position to have its upcoming games against Temple, Dayton, and Saint Louis to matter it all, it needs to put this one in the bag.