The goal in the NCAA tournament, as in every single-elimination contest, is to simply beat the team that is placed in front of you. In the calmer basketball times of the summer, a team or a fan can look forward to March and mark a certain round as the bar for success or look back on last year with a note of perspective and say that making it a certain distance was enough to call the season a good one. None of that matters right now, though. In barely 24 hours from the time of this writing, Baylor and Xavier will tip off with a bid to the Elite Eight on the line. Nobody goes into a Sweet Sixteen game with the mindset that they're just content to have made it there. No matter how the teams' hopes were set up in the summer, and no matter what vindication a few months of perspective might offer, a loss on Friday night would be crushing to either team.
Both teams are, of course, in a position that 329 other teams in the nation envy. They both came into the season loaded with talent and had expectations to match. We all know how Xavier's season progressed. Baylor started out even hotter, running riot through a weak non-conference schedule on their way to a 13-0 record before the calendar turned. Strewn in their wake were neutral-site wins against West Virginia and St. Mary's, a home win over San Diego State, and the wholesale slaughter of such less lights as Jackson State, South Carolina State, and NAIA also-ran Paul Quinn College.
Defensively, much has been made of Scott Drew's 1-3-1 system. Baylor has the physical gifts to be a good man-to-man team or to cause teams trouble with a trapping 1-3-1, but they don't do either of those things. That's not to say the defense is bad though. They are just a scoche better than national average in three-point percentage and frequency defense. They also force turnovers on 21% of opponent possessions, which is again slightly better than average. The middle is where teams really struggle against Baylor, though. They block 12.2% of opponents' shots from inside the arc (40th in the country) and only allow teams to shoot 45.8% on two-point attempts. Despite all this swarming, they're still comfortably inside the top 100 in avoiding sending opponents to the line. If score inside the arc against Baylor, it's because you earned it.
As you might well imagine of an offense as prolific as the Bears' it starts with the point guard. Junior Pierre Jackson stands only 5'10" but more than makes up for that with his quickness and shooting ability. He averages 13.5/2.9/5.8 with 1.8 steals on .461/.419/.821 shooting. He is an elite ball distributor, assisting 37% of his teammates' field goals while he's on the court. He also gets a steal on 3.5% of opponents' possessions, which is 110th in the country. His turnover rate, however, is very high, with over a quarter of the possessions he uses ending in a TO. That translates to about 3.5 TO per game, which isn't ideal from your point guard.
Fellow guard Brady Heslip is on the court because he can flat out shoot the basketball. His game line of 10.3/1.3/1.3 isn't all that impressive, but his shooting line of .455/.456/.938 sure is. The Boston College transfer is just a sophomore, but - as Colorado found out - he is already capable of completely taking over a game with his three-point shooting prowess. His adjusted offensive rating - a measure of how many points a player produces per 100 possessions he uses - of 138.5 is best in the nation. His game has limitations - like rebounding and defense - but he will torch you on the offensive end if given the opportunity.
Wing Quincy Acy is the exact opposite. While not a bad scorer in his own right, Acy's game is built more on his athleticism than his skill. He averages 11.5/7.2/0.9 with 1.9 blocks per game, which is a pretty impressive line for someone who stands 6'7" and plays the three. His shooting line of .567/.600/.765 is also pretty impressive, though he has shot only five threes on the season. More than half of the senior's career baskets have come on dunks. His offensive and defensive rebounding rates and block rate are all elite. Acy is a superlative athlete who may well be a matchup problem for Xavier.
Quincy Miller is a 6'9" freshman power forward who is already putting up big numbers for Coach Drew. The Chicago native is averaging 11.0/4.9/1.5 on .453/.354/.816 shooting on the year and, unlike Acy, is actually a viable threat from behind the arc. Miller doesn't get to the glass as well as the other forwards in the starting lineup, but he makes up for that with his ability to step out and stretch the defense for the Bears. Xavier has had decent success in shutting down guards who can shoot this year, but a big man of Miller's skill level has been a nightmare for the Muskies all year long. He can also take two dribbles, spin to the middle, and dunk on you.
Starting at center for the Bears is 6'11", 235 lb enigma Perry Jones III. There's no question in anyone's mind that Jones has the talent to be a difference making player at this - and possibly the next - level, but his desire seems to wax and wane like the phases of the moon. Jones has been a no-show for the first two games of the NCAA tournament, casting doubt in the minds of Baylor fans regarding how reliable he may be. Despite the questions about his effort, Jones has still averaged 13.4/7.7/1.3 on .494/.290/.691 shooting this year. If Jones brings the game that posted 31 and 11 against Kansas State or 22 and 14 against Texas, Xavier will have trouble. If he comes with the effort that has him sitting on a total of 9 points through the first two games of the tournament, he poses a significantly diminished threat.
Baylor gets 30.4% of their minutes from their reserves, which is exactly national average. Anthony Jones is willowy 6'10" senior forward who gets 15 minutes a game off the bench. He manages 5.3 and 3.0 on .497/.350/.588 shooting. At 21-60 from deep, he's another viable threat from the four position. Jones is the best offensive player coming the bench for the Bears. AJ Walton is a 6'1" junior guard who gets 20 minutes per game. He averages 3.9/2.8/2.8 per game with 1.4 steals but a rather grim shooting line of .328/.200/.746. He also averages 2 turnovers per game with a catastrophic TO rate of 32.1. Cory Jefferson, Deuce Bello, and Gary Franklin all get about 10 minutes per game, but none of them put together a really noteworthy line.
-How limited are Andre Walker and Dez Wells? It's no secret that Wells and Walker are a huge part of Xavier's game. Wells has the athletic ability to challenge just about anyone in the country, and Walker has played the role of the ultimate glue guy all season. Xavier is going to need both of them to restrain Baylor's talented front line. Walker sat out practice on Thursday, but Coach Mack said it was a precautionary measure to make sure he was full strength on Friday. Dez Wells participated in most of the practice, but Coach Mack said that his ability to play was still not a certainty as of the team's press conference. Wells figures to at least be ready to give it a go, but it's anyone's guess how much explosiveness he'll lose from having a bum toe. Head injuries are harder to predict, but it's certain that Xavier is going to need as much as Wells and Walker are able to give against Baylor.
-Which Perry Jones III will show up? As mentioned above, Perry Jones is just about unstoppable when he's in the mood to play ball, but he also disappears often enough to make you wonder if he actually exists. You'd think that he would be geared up for tournament time, but so far he hasn't been. If he decides that today is the day, he has the size and athleticism to give Kenny Frease a very difficult matchup on both ends of the floor. If he doesn't, Xavier may be able to have their way in the paint on Friday.
-Is Brad Redford ready to go? Redford has been extremely streaky this year as he has continued to recover from reconstructive knee surgery, but Friday may be his time to answer the bell for X. Baylor's 1-3-1 has weak spots high on the wings and in the corners and is vulnerable to quick ball reversal. With Dez Wells and his 39% shooting from three in question, Xavier may be forced to call on Redford to step up and make a few big buckets against the Baylor defense.
-Dee Davis. Yes, Dee Davis. Xavier's freshman point guard has had and up and down season, but his contribution in the first half really kept Xavier in the game. Don't be surprised to see X feature more of a three-guard set with him, Lyons, and Holloway on the court as often as Baylor's personnel allows. More importantly than anything Davis does on the offensive end (assuming he doesn't bag two more rainbow threes) is his prowess as an on-ball defender. Pierre Jackson is - like Davis - small and quick, but Dee has proven himself as capable of containing such a player as just about anyone X has. If Davis can get 10-15 good minutes harassing Jackson and not hampering Xavier on the offensive end, his night will be a success.
-Keep Baylor off the offensive glass. The Bears get to the offensive boards better than anyone left in the tournament except for UNC, and that often leads to easy stick backs and longer offensive possessions. For Xavier to be successful in the full court, they need to secure defensive rebounds and get the ball out in transition. The battle on the glass at Xavier's defensive end is going to determine if Baylor will get easy buckets on stickbacks or Xavier will get them in transition. Whoever wins that is going to reap the kind of buckets that can make the difference in a closely contested game.
-Reverse the ball. Baylor's defense is predicated on shutting down first-side penetration and forcing the offense into silly live-ball turnovers. Switching the ball from side to side before trying to get it into the middle will force the Bears to shift and move their zone. The more you make a defense work, the better the chances that it breaks down late in the possession. Xavier's guards tend to get a bit dribble-happy, but a little bit of hot potato early in the shot clock will go a long way towards helping holes open in the Baylor defense later on.
Just on a talent versus talent basis, this should be the end of the line for the Musketeers. However, Baylor struggles at times to get the most out of their talent, and one of the trademarks of Xavier tournament teams in the past has been finding a way to compete as a whole that is more than the sum of the team's parts. Ken Pomeroy gives Xavier about a 70% chance of losing this game. That means that X has about a 30% chance of winning Friday night. If these two teams played 100 times, it's probable that Baylor would win the majority of those games. They're not playing 100 times, though; they're playing once. Xavier doesn't have to be a better team overall than Baylor; they just have to find a way to be better than the Bears for 40 minutes on Friday night.