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Xavier v. Charlotte: Preview

Don't let this taint your view of the next 1,400 words or so, but I've not been less excited about a Xavier game since... well, I don't know when. Xavier is hosting conference bottom-feeder Charlotte, who is only making the conference tournament because Fordham and URI are also in the Atlantic 10. Charlotte will end up being the away team at some campus-site game - the tie breakers are too complicated right now to tell where - and will probably capitulate with little to no fanfare. In the meantime, they have to go through the formality of the final game of the season, being the opponent for Xavier's senior night. The Muskies' already beleaguered RPI will take a hit from hosting such a poor team, and all hopes of an at-large bid will go out the window, even on the softest of bubble imaginable, if Xavier somehow contrives to lose this game.

Charlotte, miraculously, manages to have even less at stake. At 13-15 (5-10), they are well past the point of wanting a "resume win" in any meaningful fashion. Even if they were to be able to pull off a win at Xavier, they would still need three more in the conference tournament to qualify for consideration to such post-season testimonials as the CBI and the CIT. Considering that such a scenario would involve nearly doubling the team's win tally against A-10 opponents from where it stands right now, it seems a far-fetched hope to say the least.

Since these two teams last played, Charlotte has picked up wins at Fordham and home to Rhode Island and George Washington. Road losses include La Salle, Dayton, and a one-point heartbreaker against Richmond. The 49ers last two games have been at home, and they've lost them both to St. Bonaventure and Duquesne by a combined total of 27 points. Again, it seems unlikely that Charlotte's season continues after the final horn of their first conference tournament game.

During conference play, Charlotte's number one problem has been its offense. The 49ers simply can't score the basketball, which may come as a surprise to anyone who watched them run 70 in 66 possessions against Xavier. They shoot a respectable 34% from behind the arc in A-10 play, but that is tempered by their 46% mark from two-point range. They are also last in the league in offensive turnover percentage, coughing up the ball on 21% of their possessions. Offensive rebounding is also a weakness; they grab fewer than 30% of their own misses.

Defensively, Charlotte is solidly mediocre. Teams score on them with such ease that I can't think of a single family-appropriate analogy to describe it; opponents hit 34% of their three-point attempts and 51% of their two-point attempts. They even convert 73.5% of their free throw attempts, though it's disputable just how much control Charlotte has over that. Fortunately for their defensive efficiency rating, the 49ers force turnovers on 21% of opponents' possessions and only allow offensive rebounds on 30% of opponents' misses. Shots against Charlotte's defense have a knack for going in, but the 49ers do what they can to limit the frequency of those shots.

More in-depth information on Charlotte's individual players can be found in our preview of the previous game between these two teams. It should be noted that freshman point guard Pierria Henry is healed up and ready to go after missing the first game. He averages 7.2/3.6/3.3 with 2.6 steals and 2.5 turnovers per game. He's a decent shooter from the floor (.411) and deep (.325) and awful from the line (.549). He is a very disruptive defender, both on the ball and in the passing lanes, and he distributes the ball better than anyone Charlotte had out the in the first game.

Three questions:
-Has Xavier figured out how to stop a flex four? One of the many things that has plagued Xavier during the last 2/3 of the season has been the team's inability to slow down a bigger man who can shoot jump shots. Chris Braswell has filled that role in recent years for Charlotte, but Javarris Barnett has been a reliable contributor for the 49ers throughout his career and - to nobody's great surprise - had the shooting game of his career against X last time out. If Xavier can't figure it out, Andrew Nicholson, Matt Kavanaugh, Brian Conklin, Rob Loe, and a host of other bigs are waiting in the conference tournament to send X to the NIT.

-Can Xavier's guards operate off the ball? To succeed, this iteration of the Muskies has to have production from the starting guard tandem of Lyons and Holloway. Whether that is how it should be or not has been the subject of some debate, but those two players simply spend too much time on the ball not to be turning it into buckets. Lately, however, it has seemed like Xavier can't get both of them to click during the same game. Lyons has had a troubling propensity for thinking his having the ball means he needs to shoot, and Holloway has had trouble working himself into some games. Coach Mack opined that the cure for this is to get those two moving around the court as screeners and cutters to make the defense react to their movement. If that will actually end up happening is another consideration altogether.

-Is Big Kenny coming on? Kenny Frease has put together back-to-back efficient scoring games for Xavier, just when many of us were wondering if his career was all but dead and buried. Having a steady presence in the post (and actually taking advantage of him) would be a huge boost for this Xavier team. If Frease is throwing together a late-career surge, I hope it's not too late to help get Xavier into some meaningful games before it's all said and done.

Three keys:
-Set a tone.
How did you feel about Xavier after the Saint Louis game? If you're anything like me and Brad or most people we can find on the internet, it wasn't good. There's not much that Xavier can take away from this game against Charlotte, but a little bit of momentum is one of those things. The Muskies are going to need to do some damage in the conference tournament to have a shot at the NCAA tourney; hobbling in after a flaccid home victory against an opponent of no regard isn't the best way to set that up.

-Make the offense active. As alluded to above, Holloway and Lyons are easier to stop when they dribble for about 20 seconds before trying to force their way in or chuck up rushed shots early in the possession. The best way to beat a defense is give yourself more options than it can handle and force it to leave something open. Getting Tu and Cheeks moving off the ball, posting and kicking out, basically running anything other than an incessant stream of high ball screens, would certainly help Xavier's often awful half-court offense perk up. It's never too late to diversify.

-Play the whole game. One of the most troubling things about Xavier's recent struggles has been the team's tendency to completely disappear for stretches of the game. They did so most notably right after the half at Saint Louis, but X has allowed a lot of staggeringly long runs as the offense vanishes and the defense capitulates. Charlotte's probably not going to put together a 14-2 or 10-0 run at any point in the game, but having a consistently superior performance should be a point of focus for Xavier on Saturday.

Bottom line:
Xavier's RPI is going to suffer from this game, and that's not a welcome development for a team in Xavier's tenuous condition. I stated on Twitter at the beginning of February that I thought this team needed 21 or 22 wins to lock up an at large bid. Since then, X has gone 4-4 and dropped very winnable games at Memphis and at Saint Louis. To meet that number at this point, Xavier needs to knock off Charlotte and then make a run to the final of the Atlantic 10 tournament. Anything less than that likely means a very nervous Selection Sunday for the Musketeers and their fans at the very best. In the meantime, hope the Muskies take care of business and the favorites win the automatic bids in every other conference.

I also want to mention that our coverage of the game will be a little different than it usually is. I'll be tied up at work, and Brad will be on press row at Cintas working on our coverage of the Senior Day festivities. We'll both try to keep the Twitter feed (you do follow us, right?) rolling, and I'll have the Boxscore Breakdown up in short order after the game. If you're on here tomorrow and things are running a bit differently than they usually do, that's why.