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(How) Can Xavier Beat VCU?

Shaka Smart letting slip the dogs of war.
Shaka Smart letting slip the dogs of war.

We've looked a couple of times at how Xavier can find their way into the NCAA tournament. It's down to brass tacks now, and the Muskies' game this Saturday against Virginia Commonwealth has huge implications for the team's March chances. Brad and I discuss what, if anything, can be done for Xavier to bring home a huge win.

Joel: Hands down the biggest game of the year coming up, and there are about a billion things we need to do to win it. I want to get some action going on the site, so what say we reach way down into our bag of gimmicks and pull out a conversation to run this evening? Our bag of gimmicks is one gimmick deep, just FYI.

Anyhow, I watched that VCU-Saint Lou (they hate it when you abbreviate "Saint", not sure why) game, and the Rams didn't look that great. Their "Havoc" press is predicated almost entirely on making baskets. If they're not doing that, they can't get into the press. The press masks the fact that, on possessions in which they don't force a turnover, their defense is somewhere between "nothing special" and "bad". They can be had inside, and their defensive rebounding is miserable. If Xavier can just get the ball across the time line and either get it inside to the insatiable Travis Taylor or even just get it on the rim and let Taylor, JRob, and Philmore go after it, they have a chance. I'll kick it to you, then, with two questions: 1) Can Xavier keep hold of the ball well enough to execute that plan? 2) Who do you play? Three guards may help break the press, but going Philmore, Taylor, JRob across the front gets your three best offensive rebounders on the court and exploits VCU's lack of size. JMart isn't great on the offensive glass, but he kills possessions with defensive rebounds from the three and has good length/athletic ability. I'd hate to see too much of Amos against a ball pressure defense, but he helps against VCU's guards on the other end.

Brad: 1. No, I don't think we can hold the ball well enough to combat Havoc. We turned it over 14 times against a much lesser set of Rams last night, and they aren't nearly as effective at turning people over as VCU is.
2. I go big and hope for the best I think. JRob is the one I wonder about, because he makes awful decisions as a matter of routine. Still, we can't match up guard for guard against them.

Joel: Since you're already in such a positive mood about the game, let's move on to the next point. In as much as VCU sucks on the defensive glass, they hit the offensive boards like maniacs. Keeping them from getting second-chance points is a must, because there is going to be a part of this game in which they go on a run from turning X over; it's inevitable. This leads to three basic personnel options for Xavier (assuming Taylor and JRob are down low). The first is Martin at the three. He doesn't rebound on offense as well as you might like, but he's very good on the defensive glass. If your focus is killing VCU possessions with defensive boards, he's your guy. The second is Philmore at the three. He's a lot better at offensive rebounding, but is a tad sketchy on the defensive glass. If you're going to get aggressive and want some stickbacks, this isn't a bad option. His girth would be a big advantage against a willowy VCU front line.

The third is from the "so crazy/stupid it just might work" file: Philmore at the three, JMart at the two. Now I know, that leaves us with one ballhandler against the best press in the nation. We're going to have real trouble beating VCU heads up, though; maybe going well off the reservation is the key to our success. Go silly big, try to pass over the press, pound the boards. It could work, right?

Brad: I think your idea lands more under "stupid" than "crazy." Dee turned it over four times last night, do you really want him alone against Briante Weber or Darius Theus? The key is going to be Martin showing up and playing as if he possess the things we usually associate with men (family friendly!) He's about the only guy we have that creates a serious mismatch for them. Mind you, I think Taylor will give them issues, but that's because he's a monster, not because he has length or athletic ability they don't.

Joel: At some level, the game is going to come down to our trying to choose what to take away from them and hoping the rest breaks in our favor. I'm not in love with the risks Dee takes with the ball, but at some point we're going to have to roll those dice. He had 4 of our 7 dimes last night. He still sets a better tone in the half court than Semaj does in my opinion. On 2 of his TO against URI, he was just knocked to the floor. If the officials let VCU be similarly physical, it's going to take a special effort from Dee to not be useless.

The other potential play, of course, is to match them little for little. They don't have a 4 on their team that JMart can't guard if Trav is on their 5. This gives up some of the advantage on the boards, but it may help with the press. Station Red in a corner and Trav on the post; let Dee, JMart, and Semaj work the press. If they get it across half court, have Martin trail on the opposite wing. He and Redford have to be ready to rise and fire repeatedly, regardless of previous success/failure. There will be clean looks out of a broken press situation; maybe we should just try to win the three-point lottery.

There are a lot of things we've discussed strategically here. Gun to your head, what is Plan A if you're Coach Mack, and what is/are your changes of pace/backup plan(s)?

Brad: I go big and I hope for the best. I probably still start Martin over Philmore just because you need some outlet for pressure and Isaiah doesn't give you that. I tell JRob that if I catch him thinking I'll bench him for eternity. If there is a game where his instinct and ability can just take over, this is it. If he's running the floor and just reacting, he could go off. Of course, yesterday he got called for travelling when he was running the floor and forgot to dribble the ball, so he gives and takes away. This is a bad matchup for us, the only way I see us having a chance is to crush them on the glass and grind another one out.

We need to get one of the VCU/Butler/Saint Louis games to have a shot at a bye. (KenPom has us going 1-4 to close the season, by the way). Do you think we have a chance in any of those games? If I had to pick one I would say the Billikens, just because I don't think they can speed up a game against a similar team to the point where they could blow them out. They crushed VCU because VCU is a gimmick team (it's an awesome gimmick, to be sure) that couldn't get their gimmick going. Gimmick. In a straight game I think we have a chance just because it should be slow.

Joel: I see it the opposite way (we're both assuming we beat UMass, because if we don't, we're deservedly dead in the water). I don't see where we can score on Saint Louis in the half court. They turn teams over almost as well as VCU does and smother you from the arc on in. We just scored 55 in a 64-possession game against URI; we might score 40 against the Billikens. To me, this is our shot. Butler at Hinkle with a bye on the line is going to be a big ask. If X can't find a win on Saturday, I think it's 9-7 in conference and needing a miracle four-day run on Brooklyn.