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Xavier v. Lehigh: Preview

C.J. McCollum looms large over Xavier's preparation for Sunday's pivotal NCAA tournament game.
C.J. McCollum looms large over Xavier's preparation for Sunday's pivotal NCAA tournament game.

Lehigh is not a better team than Duke. This is not a more frightening matchup for the Muskies just because Lehigh knocked off the Blue Devils. Xavier has definitely dodged a bullet by pulling the Mountain Hawks instead of Duke with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. However, as Dez Wells so astutely pointed in the post-game press conference, you don't have to be the best team in the nation to advance in the tournament, you just have to be the best team on the court at that time. Lehigh as already shown they are capable of being the better team when Duke is the other squad on the floor, and that alone should put the Musketeers on notice that their ticket to the next round is not yet punched.

On offense, the Mountain Hawks are in many ways the opposite of the Notre Dame squad Xavier played on Friday. Lehigh likes to get the ball out and move, playing at over 68 possessions per game. Despite emphasising a high-tempo approach, they do a pretty good job of protecting the ball. They only turn it over on 16.6% of their possessions, which is good for 14th in the country. Against Duke, they only turned it over 8 times, which was an integral part of their ability to take over and ultimately win the game. Lehigh also shoots pretty well from deep (35%) and they take 36% of their shots from behind the arc, which is good for 100th in the country. They also hit almost half their shots from inside the arc and execute to the tune of 77% (7th in the nation) from the line. Offensive rebounding is not a big part of the Hawks' game; they only run down 31% of their own misses.

Defensively, Lehigh is in the top 100 in adjusted efficiency. The Mountain Hawks are pretty steady in all facets of the defensive game, doing many things above average without doing anything at an elite level. They defend the glass very well, allowing offensive rebounds on only 29.7% of their opponents' missed shots. They force turnovers on 21% of opponents' trips down the floor, which is 116th best in the country. Clean looks are hard to come by against Lehigh, as opponents shoot only 46% from within the arc and 33% from outside it. Teams get looks from three at about an average rate against the Mountain Hawks, though Xavier is unlikely to try to score a lot of buckets from deep. The Mountain Hawks rarely block shots, but they are in the top 60 in the nation in live ball steals.

It would be disingenuous to begin this section anywhere but with CJ McCollum, Lehigh's junior guard from Canton, OH. McCallum has been the man since he stepped onto campus, averaging 21 PPG for his career. It's difficult to argue that many players do more for their teams than McCollum does for the Mountain Hawks. He plays 82% of their minutes, uses 33% of their possessions when on the court, and takes 34% of their shots when he's in. Those usage numbers are eighth and seventeenth in the nation, respectively. He's also a borderline elite presence on the defensive glass and a menace on the ball and in the passing lanes on defense. He assists 26% of the baskets his team scores when he's on the floor, rarely turns the ball over, and draws 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes that he plays. His game line is 22.1/6.5/3.6 with 2.6 steals on .452/.353/.808 shooting. McCollum leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals and is second in offensive rebounding and blocked shots. Lehigh asks him to do a whole bunch of everything, and he has responded with aplomb throughout his career.

Despite McCollum's prolific performance, Lehigh is far from a one-man band. Junior forward Gabe Knutson is just as efficient a scorer as McCollum, albeit in fewer attempts. Knutson takes 23% of the team's shots when he's on the floor, though, so it's not like he's shy when presented with an opportunity. Knutson went for 17/8/0 on 5-5/1-1/6-7 against Duke and will gladly eviscerate Xavier with just as much poise if given the opportunity. On the year, he's averaging 12.3/5.6/1.2 on .511/.438/.803 shooting. Though he has only taken 16 threes on the season, he does have the ability to step out and knock one down. At 6'9", 220, he's not a bull like Jack Cooley, but he is a very effective presence on the offensive glass. Knutson is also very effective at drawing fouls; keeping him from settling into a rhythm will be almost as important for Xavier as containing McCollum.

Senior forward John Adams has been starting since the second week of February; he averages 4.8/3.7/0.5 on .456/.421/.762. Despite lacking size (he's 6'6", 225), he is a very good defensive rebounder. Adams grabs 18.3% of opponents' misses when he's on the floor, which is easily in the top 10% in the country. Adams also provides a valuable option for spreading the floor, as he is 24-57 from deep on the year. It's not abundantly clear - at least that I can find - what precipitated his move to the starting lineup, but he has been averaging 6.3 PPG since he was promoted.

Jordan Hamilton is also a senior forward and, like Adams, is undersized at 6'6", 205. Unlike Adams, however, he spends most his time out on the perimemter. Hamilton averages 6.7/1.7/0.9 on .410/.339/.809 shooting. Hamilton is a pretty efficient scorer, but he only takes 16% of the team's shots while he is on the floor. He has the ability to go off (23 points against Liberty, 13 points against Colgate in the conference tournament) or disappear completely (14 games with 5 or fewer points).

McCollum's running mate in the back court is point guard Mackey McKnight. McKnight averages 8.4/2.8/.3.6 with 1.1 steals per game on .433/.350/.784 shooting. His A:TO is up over 2:1, which is pretty good for a guy who spends so much time with the ball in his hands. He has a knack for getting to the line when he gets to the lane, having shot 97 free throws and 121 two-point shots. The primary responsibility McKnight has, though, is ball distribution, and he assists just over 23% of his teammates' made buckets when he's on the court.

Lehigh is an exceptionally deep team, with 34% of their minutes coming from off the pine. Six-foot-seven, 210 pound forward Holden Greiner had been a starter for most of the year, but he's been coming off the bench for the last nine games for Lehigh. He averages 9.7/4.8/0.9 on .440/.350/.750 shooting on the year, but his performances have been spotty since he moved to the bench. He dropped 14 in 13 minutes against American in the conference tournament, but he also scored exactly zero points against Duke. If he gets minutes at the four, he might be able to stretch the floor and give Xavier problems.

Lehigh has four other players who get between 11 and 14 minutes per game. Interesting numbers there include guard BJ Bailey's 12 of 24 from behind the arc, guard Corey Schaefer's 40 assists to only 19 turnovers, and 6'8", 240 pound senior Justin Maneri's 2.1 RPG and .532 FG%. The Mountain Hawks' bench isn't full of dynamic players, but they are servicable enough to allow the team to run at a high pace without gassing the starters.

Three questions:


-Can Xavier stop CJ McCollum? McCollum didn't have his best game against Duke, needing 24 shots to get his 30 points. Despite that, the Musketeers are going to need to focus on slowing down McCollum to get Lehigh out of what they want to do on offense. At 6'3", 180, he is going to have a little bit of a size advantage on either of Holloway or Lyons. It will be interesting to see if Coach Mack decides to put one of his veteran guards on McCollum or chooses to run Dez Wells at him. Also watch for Dee Davis to get some burn attacking the 6'0", 170 pound Mackey McKnight to give the Mountain Hawks some problems initiating their offense.

-What pace should the Muskies work for? Xavier has usually thrived in a full court running game this year, but Lehigh also favors getting up and down. Duke plays a very similar pace to Xavier, and they did nothing to slow things down against the Mountain Hawks. If that had been a viable strategy, we wouldn't have spent so much time talking about Lehigh up to this point. You can make a case that Xavier will do fine in the running game, but Xavier will be able to make its height advantage tell more in the half court game. If Big Kenny is making plays in the post, look for Coach Mack to adjure his players to slow the pace.

-Can Xavier dominate the boards? The Musketeers had a great team rebounding effort against Notre Dame and managed to hold their own against a team that isn't that bad on the glass. They will have a pretty meaningful size advantage against Lehigh, which should translate into more one-and-done possessions for the Mountain Hawks and more second chance points for Xavier. If the effort is there from Frease, Taylor, Walker, and Robinson and Wells is flying in from all angles, Xavier should be able to use an advantage on the boards to create extra possessions for themselves and limit such for the Mountain Hawks.

Three keys:
-Feed Big Kenny all day.
Lehigh is a small team in terms of height (effective height of -0.6", 212th in the nation) and girth (only Justin Maneri weighs in over 225 pounds). Mason Plumlee destroyed the Mountain Hawks' interior to the tune of 19 and 12 on 9-9/0-0/1-3 shooting, but guards Seth Curry and Austin Rivers never recognized his dominance. As that pair combined to keep shooting on their way to a combined line of 6-23/3-14/11-15 from the line, Duke disappeared from the tournament. Xavier's guards have a tendency to get a little ball dominant as games progress, but Kenny Frease has at least 3 inches and 40-50 pounds on anyone who will be guarding him. It would behoove the Muskies to build from inside out all game.

-Move the basketball. This is going to be important for a few reasons. First of all, Lehigh is elite at forcing live-ball turnovers. Quick ball movement forces defenders to spend more time recovering and less time taking away passing lanes. It also draws defenders to gamble more if they're going to try for steals. Finally, the rotations for a post double-team are more difficult if the ball has been moved quickly. To get Lehigh out of their defensive comfort zone, open up driving lanes, and make life easier for Frease on the post, Xavier has to do more whipping the ball around and less dribbling aimless waiting for ball screens on the first side.

-Execute from the free throw line. As noted above, Lehigh is not going to leave too many points at the charity stripe on Sunday. Xavier, on the other hand, has struggled from the line all season. When the Musketeers were down three with less than a minute to go, it looked like that profligacy was going to cost Xavier to the tune of a first-round exit for the second season in a row. With the size disparity between these two teams, it's likely that Xavier will get trips to the line out of scramble situations on the glass. Against a team that can score as explosively as the Mountain Hawks, the Musketeers can't afford to fritter away chances for free points.

Bottom line:
You're kidding yourself as a Xavier fan if you pretend that you're just as worried about playing Lehigh as you would have been for Duke. It's hard not to peek past the #15 seed and write the Musketeers in very faint pencil in your mind as having all but advanced to the Sweet 16. Lehigh, however, poses some really difficult questions for any team that overlooks them, as Duke found out the hard way last night. Of all places where the arduous journey the Musketeers have taken this season might pay off, this is one of them. The time at which Xavier took anything for granted this year is well in the past at this point. There are no back being patted in the Xavier locker room right now, just preparation for a very serious challenge on Sunday night. X has demonstrated its toughness all season, and it was on full display last night in the battle back for a ten-point second half deficit. With 40 minutes between the Musketeers and a trip to Atlanta for the Sweet 16, it's once again time for Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease, and the rest of the squad to pour it all onto the court and let the chips fall where they may.

All photos courtesy of the Associated Press.