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Xavier v. Wake Forest: Preview

With one last game before the Big East season, Xavier takes on Wake Forest with a chance to grab a tenth pre-conference win for the first time in the Chris Mack era.

Xavier needs to stop Codi Miller-McIntyre to control the game.
Xavier needs to stop Codi Miller-McIntyre to control the game.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the Battle4Atlantis, Xavier was playing like a team for whom double-digit non-conference victories was a foregone conclusion; it appeared only a possible date with Kansas in the final could derail the Muskies' bid for an unblemished record heading into Big East play. After a humbling 0-3 trip and a couple of subsequent close wins over mediocre (at best) opponents, games away from home against meaningful competition looked to be the last thing Xavier needed. Instead, X mopped the floor with UC and then threw up a 51-point second half to take down Alabama on the road. Now the Skip Prosser Classic gives X a chance to pick up a tenth win before conference play begins for the first time in the Chris Mack era.

After averaging 11 wins for the first three years of Jeff Bzdelik's reign as head coach, Wake Forest is off to a blistering 10-2 start this season. It's true that six of those wins have come against teams sitting below the 250 mark in the Pomeroy ratings, but they've also beaten Richmond and USC and played Kansas tough, twice cutting the Jayhawks' lead to 5 in the last two minutes before ultimately losing by nine. This is a team that, on its day, has better than a puncher's chance of putting a scare into any squad in the nation.

Team fingerprint:
Like Xavier's last two opponents, the Demon Deacons are built on defense first. Wake eschews attempting to force turnovers (278th in the nation in TO%) for solid defense and impeccable work on the boards. Teams shoot a paltry 44.4% inside the arc against Wake and an even worse 28.7% from beyond it. If you're thinking about playing the three-point lottery and hoping for the best, think again: the Deacons are above-average in suppressing three-point attempts as well. Their bigs more than pull their weight, blocking 12.6% of two-point attempts (63rd in the nation) and ranking 14th in the country with a 75% DReb%.

On offense, things are slightly less rosy. They are just a tick above average from inside the arc, but a mediocre 33.8% from beyond it and a deplorable 62.8% (WORSE THAN X!) from the line. Those shooting numbers drag down an offense that rarely turns the ball over (91st in the nation in TO%) and gets to the line very well. They also attack the glass, ranking 72nd in the nation in pulling down 35.6% of their own misses.

One of the biggest differences between Wake and X is in tempo; Wake Forest is the 81st-fastest team in the nation and the 74th-fastest in terms of brevity of offensive possessions. Where Xavier is generally pedestrian in pacing, Wake likes to get up and down. The Demon Deacons have an effective height of +1.8", good for 60th in the country. They're not an exceptionally deep team, getting just a tick over the national average in minutes from reserves.

The player: 6'3", 195-pound guard Codi Miller-McIntyre
The numbers: 17.5/3.8/4.0 on .490/.313/.701 shooting
More numbers: 25.2% usage rate, 24.8% assist rate, 5.7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: Miller-McIntyre is in many ways Wake's answer to Semaj Christon; he's a fairly sizable combo guard who leads the team in points, assists, FGA, et c. and generally sets the path for the entire team. Unlike Christon, he's fairly willing to pull from beyond the arc. He doesn't get as much buzz about going to the next level as Semaj does, but Miller-McIntyre is an excellent finisher and free throw shooter whose ability to attack off the bounce should be near the top of Xavier's list of concerns.

The player: 6'1", 160-pound guard Madison Jones
The numbers: 4.0/2.2/3.7 on .457/.400/.412 shooting
More numbers: 25.4% assist rate, 3.2% steal%, 35 FGA
The words: Madison Jones is on the floor to pass, not shoot, and he clearly understands that. He is below average from inside the arc and has only shot five times from beyond it. He is a capable and disruptive defender, and he is excellent at setting his teammates up for baskets. Jones literally averages more assists than shot attempts per game. I hope my son grows up to be this selfless.

The player: 6'7", 220-pound forward Travis McKie
The numbers: 10.8/5.1/1.8 on .426/.333/.818 shooting
More numbers: 119.5 ORtg, 3.9% block%, 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: McKie is kind of a unique scorer in that most of his work is done cutting without the ball in his hands. He shoots either layups or threes (only 12 of his 94 FGA have been two-point jumpers) and has been the recipient of an assist on 31 of his 40 made baskets. considering that an additional 6 of his buckets have been stickbacks, only 3 of McKie's scores have come on plays requiring him to get his own shot. He moves around a lot, stays active at both ends of the floor, and trusts his teammates to find him if his man switches off.

The player: 6'9", 230-pound forward Tyler Cavanaugh
The numbers: 9.3/5.7/0.7 on .434/.296/.725 shooting
More numbers: 20% DReb%, 27 3PA, 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: Cavanaugh isn't afraid to mix it up on the defensive glass, but on offense he's a stretch-4 style player. He has only one more layup/dunk attempt than three-point attempt, and he is shooting an excellent 42.9% on mid-range jumpers. Cavanaugh's game is to pull a big out from under the basket to make room for his teammates, but Xavier's forwards should have the athleticism to neutralize his threat to an extent.

The player: 6'9", 245-pound center Devin Thomas
The numbers: 11.8/9.8/1.3 on .549/.000/.527
More numbers: 82.4% of FGA taken at the rim, 10.2% OReb%, 27.4% DReb%, 3.4% block%
The words: Thomas is a predator in the paint. Only 18 of his 102 FGA have occurred away from the rim, and 31 of his 37 non-stickback buckets at the rim have come off of assists. He has the statistical profile of a player who gets deep, gets big, and awaits an entry pass so he can go to work. Additionally, he is excellent on the offensive glass and downright elite on the defensive boards. Only his dreadful performance from the free throw line keeps him from being a wholly destructive force for the Demon Deacons.

Senior guard Coron Williams has picked up a few starts and plays more minutes than Madison Jones, but he mostly comes off the bench to get his 10.4 per game on .430/.426/.909 shooting. He is a jump shooter who is borderline lethal in catch-and-shoot situations. six-foot-six wing Arnaud-William Adala Moto is a really good rebounder - especially on the offensive end - and a miserable shooter (.397/.000/.429) who for some reason takes almost a quarter of the team's shots when he is on the floor. Andre Washington is a seven footer who is an excellent finisher and shot blocker but gets only 9.4 minutes per game, and Aaron Rountree III rounds out the side by providing depth at the forward positions.

Three questions:
-Who will guard McKie?
McKie isn't a nightmare matchup in the traditional sense, but he is highly effective in finding space when moving off the ball. Meanwhile, Justin Martin - the man traditionally tasked with guarding the opponent's smallest forward - is not a defender noted for his acute positional sense or unwavering focus. If Good JMart doesn't show up on defense, Coach Mack may have to dip into his bag of defensive tricks to keep from watching McKie take open shots all evening.

-Who controls the pace? Xavier isn't a running team, but they have had some success turning stops into transition baskets at times this year. On the other side of the ball, Wake Forest wants to get out and go. If Wake Forest tries to turn the game into a track meet, will Xavier be able to stop them? Considering the athleticism Xavier can put on the floor and the speed of their guards, should they even try?

-Can Xavier win on the glass? Xavier was able to overcome the deficit against Alabama in large part due to second-chance scoring. Wake Forest plays a defense about on par with the Tide's in terms of efficiency, but their calling card so far this year has been killing possessions with defensive rebounding. The Muskies have 4-5 guys (depending on Erik Stenger's health) who are capable of going and getting misses; keeping possessions alive against Wake's stingy defense will be key for Xavier.

-How can there be a team shooting worse than Xavier from the line? That's not a very substantive question, so I just tacked it on at the end here, but my gosh. A college basketball player should be hitting 70% of his free throws; practice them while your "tutor" takes your classes for you.

Three keys:
-Stay patient.
Wake Forest is capable of forcing teams into sub-par offensive performances. When Xavier was struggling to get anything going against Alabama, nobody tried to play hero ball, and everyone staying within the intended structure of the offense ultimately led to a 51-point half and a massive come-from-behind win. Whether or not the scoreboard is in Xavier's favor, the Muskies can't afford to get ahead of themselves and try to do too much on the offensive end.

-Pack the middle. Williams is the only long-range shooter worth Xavier's efforts from beyond the arc; the rest of this team is not very good at shooting threes. Wake's offense depends on their guards being able to penetrate and their bigs being able to go to work inside. Matt Stainbrook has played the eraser in the middle, and James Farr and the foul-happy Jalen Reynolds also turn away more than their share of shots, but it would behoove the Musketeers defense to make the painted area as congested as possible.

-Work inside out. In that they have a defensive weakness (beyond the inability to force turnovers), Wake's biggest problem on that end is their penchant for sending opponents to the line. Their forwards are especially culpable, with Thomas averaging 4.4 fouls per 40 and Cavanaugh 5.2. Reserves Adala Moto (7.3) and Washington (7.4) are even worse; if Xavier can get Wake Forest's big men in foul trouble early, that will go a long way to neutralizing the Deacons' efforts on the glass and making their offense more one-dimensional. If X can establish Stainbrook and Philmore early, the kick outs to shooters and the space for slashers should be there later on.