If you need to be told anything about the Dayton Flyers, chances are you haven't been paying much attention to Xavier this year. For those of you who start following college basketball in March, click here and here for information on the Flyers and here and here to get caught up on Xavier's encounters with them this season. We'll wait. It's that important that you be informed; there's kind of a big game coming up here.
For Xavier and UD, Friday's game is do-or-die in regards to consideration for entry into the NCAA tournament. There is some debate as to how much more work each team would have to do after a win, but you can't find a credible source anywhere on the continent that regards either team as having compiled an impressive enough resume at this point to weather a loss in this game and still be worthy of at-large consideration. Unlike previous "must-win" games on Xavier's slate, this one comes without a net. There are no more opportunities for recompense left on the schedule. I Xavier loses to Dayton, Tu Holloway's and Kenny Frease's careers at X will end like James Posey's did: in the NIT.
Rhetoric has been coming out of the Xavier camp all week that the Muskies will be ready for their third clash with the Flyers this year. Big Kenny said he's not nervous, just ready to get going. Coach Mack said Xavier will go hard for three days - all since passed - before boarding a plane for Atlantic City on Thursday. Dez Wells said that Xavier is still the team that was ranked eighth in the nation; everyone around the team is saying that Xavier's season is taking them to the NCAA tournament this year. Talk is cheap, though; it's time for Xavier to put it down on the court for three straight nights.
-Can Xavier adequately neutralize Dayton's bigs? Matt Kavanaugh proved himself a capable and efficient inside scorer for Dayton in the first game, but X was able to get him into foul trouble, fluster him, and limit his touches on the return leg. Keeping him from catching deep is essential to keeping him from dropping 20 again. More concerningly, Dayton has a plurality of fours who can step out and knock down the three-point shot. If they get hot, they will be more than happy to shoot the Muskies into the NIT. Xavier can prevent open looks for these bigs with adequate rotations on defense; doing so is a must for X on Friday.
-Is Cheeks reliable as a second scorer going forward? Mark Lyons' struggles have been well-documented here and across the Xavier-related internet this year, but he has shown some signs of rounding back into form for the stretch run. The most important part of Lyons' attitude. Coach Mack lauded him for recovering from a missed layup against Charlotte to sprint back and block a shot on the other end. If Lyons can avoid playing frustrated, whining at the refs, and forcing shots, he'll be a huge asset for the Muskies. If not, the best Xavier can hope for is that he doesn't burn too many possessions on the offensive end before he realizes that it's not his night.
-Can Xavier recapture mean basketball? Xavier's success and their on-court arrogance go hand-in-hand. We're not going to waste this space rehashing what exactly happened to that, but having a little bit of an edge can help a team with three games in three days on a neutral site. Swagger and success breed one another for this Xavier team. It wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing to see Cheeks, Tu, and even some of the more reserved players on the team letting it eat a little bit against Dayton and on into the A-10 tournament.
-Feed Big Kenny on the post. Coach Mack has made much of running more sets that have Big Kenny working block-to-block in Xavier's offense rather than dragging him 25 feet from the bucket to set a ball screen. While this clogs up driving lanes for Xavier's guards to a certain extent, it seem self-evident that having the biggest guy on the court should be an exploitable edge in a basketball game. In the last four games, Kenny Frease has responded with renewed effort and some of his best production of the season. It wouldn't hurt Xavier to make Matt Kavanaugh or any of Dayton's plethora of face-up fours play defense. Foul trouble for UD and easy chances for Xavier are just added perks to dumping the ball in to Frease and letting him work.
-Get the ball out of Lyons' and Holloways' hands. Xavier's offense becomes too predictable when Tu and Cheeks dribble around waiting for ball screens. Moving the basketball makes the other team work, and gaps inevitably open up in defenses that are forced to rotate. Brad Redford is capable of shooting with a minimal amount of space, Dez Wells can drive through a shifting defense, and Kenny Frease can take advantage of post touches without a double team, to say nothing of the obvious advantages for Holloway and Lyons going against a defense on the scramble. Both of those guys have a little bit of hero in them; if they can calm down and keep the ball moving, X will be the better for it.
-Gang rebound. The key to Xavier's fast-breaking offense is to kill the opponent's possession and get the ball out in transition. When the other team is successful on the offensive glass, however, they are the ones getting the free points. For Xavier to smoothly shift from defense to offense, they have to be able to hold Dayton to one-and-done on the offensive end. The Musketeers need a successful effort from all five guys on the court in this department to keep UD from grabbing stick backs and to jumpstart Xavier's high-tempo attack.
With all the groundwork that has been laid and all the ink (real and virtual) that has been spilled about this season and this rivalry, it all comes down to this for Xavier. For (at least) 40 minutes Friday, nothing that has happened since November or might happen on Saturday or Sunday is going to matter. Two teams that have been evenly matched all year are going to square off on a neutral court and take on another's best shots. Talent and ability aren't going to be enough - much as I don't like them, Dayton has those things. The desire to end a year or a career on the biggest stage of them all won't separate these two teams - it would be absurd to suspect that anyone involved in the games lacks those things. It comes down to that little something extra, the difference between Bryce Drew finding the bottom of the net right in front of his dad and Gordon Hayward going begging from beyond half court. Lionel Chalmers had that. BJ Raymond had that. Tu Holloway has found it in the past; Xavier needs it again this weekend. The Musketeers' one shining moment begins tomorrow in Atlantic City... or it doesn't begin at all.