Xavier will take the court at the Cintas coming off one of their best resume building wins of the year. Despite the fact that resumes no longer matter to this team, defeating nationally ranked Memphis is sure to have added a bit of spring to the Musketeers step. To add to the feeling of a possible spring renewal will be the return of Dee Davis from the battering he took against VCU. Most importantly, this is Xavier's best chance to grab a final conference win and avoid being stuck at 8-8 and the potential mess that would entail.
Coming into town to face the Musketeers will be the underachievers of the conference. Picked by most media outlets (including this one) to be in the mix for the conference championship, the Minutemen are instead 7-6 and four games out of the lead. UMass lost three of their four toughest non-conference tests, then ruined a 6-3 conference start with a three game skid they only just snapped. With only one RPI top 50 win (La Salle) UMass' at large chances probably can't take a loss to the Musketeers and come out the other side. This game carries weight for both teams.
UMass plays fast. Their adjusted tempo of 71.3 is good for ninth in the nation and is so much faster than Xavier's as to, at times, make it seem like a different game. For some context, consider that the vaunted VCU Rams and their well hyped fast paced attack registers at 68.1. So yes, the Minutemen are very fast.
What isn't quite so clear is where the Minutemen are in such a rush to get. At the start of the year UMass was expected to run and shoot their way into the postseason, just like they did last year. Last year the Minutemen crashed the boards with abandon and just generally played like that group of guys that always ends up on the same team at an open run. This year, UMass is making two percent fewer (32.9%) of their threes, lifting more often (36% of their shots), and grabbing fewer offensive rebounds (32.2%). The Minutemen don't rank in the top 100 nationally in a single offensive component. All the tempo in the world doesn't help when your main offensive weapon has gone missing.
Defensively, the suffocating effort that was so successful for Derek Kellogg last year has also vanished into thin air. A year after being 47th in the nation in effective filed goal defense, 27th in three point defense, and 32nd in steal percentage, the Minutemen are 131st, 116th, and 143rd in those same measures. Mind you, there hasn't been an emphasis switch, a massive injury, or a coaching change, it's just same thing being done not nearly as well. One that UMass will still do well though, is block shots. Cady LaLanne, Raphiael Putney, and Maxie Esho are all in the top 200 in block percentage, and UMass is 42nd nationally.
The player: 5-9, 175 pound junior guard Chaz Williams
The numbers: 15.8/4.5/7.6 on .431/.355/.752 shooting.
More numbers: 42.1% assist rate, 3.2% steal%, 2 spg
The words: UMass begins and ends with Chaz Williams. The consummate stat sheet stuffer, Williams plays 36 minutes per game and seems determined to get the most out of each and every one of them. Chaz is shooting the ball better than the 41% mark he put up last year, but still isn't exactly a deadeye shooter. Inside the arc Williams converts 47% of his attempts, despite being generously listed at 5-9.
The player: 6-5, 190 pound senior guard Freddie Riley
The numbers: 8.2/1.4/1.1 on .386/.348/.529 shooting
More numbers: 13.7 TORate, 47% 2PTFG
The words: Riley got his chance to start this year when Jesse Morgan got injured against Saint Louis. Since then, Riley has been pretty non-descript in his supporting role. What jumps out most about Freddie is his atrocious shot selection. Good inside the arc, Riley has taken twice as many threes as he has twos. Given that his current three point percentage is a career high, there's no real reason for him to think things are going to suddenly get better.
The player: 6-8, 220 pound junior forward Sampson Carter
The numbers: 6.1/4.2/0.6 on .431/.219/.709 shooting.
More numbers: 4.5 fouls committed per 40 minutes
The words: Part of the reason Freddie Riley shoots so much might be because he is afraid that if he doesn't, Sampson Carter will. Ostensibly a big, Carter doesn't hit the glass particularly well on either end (4.4% OR, 15.9% DR) and doesn't compare with his fellow forwards when it comes to blocking shots. On the other hand, he does convert well from the line when he gets there.
The player: 6-7, 220 pound senior forward Terrell Vinson
The numbers: 12.2/4.1/1.1 on .463/.373/.672 shooting.
More numbers: 55.4 TS%, 51.7% EFG
The words: Where his teammates struggle to knock down shots from time to time, Vinson excels. Exactly a 50% shooter from inside the arc, Vinson can step out and make threes when presented with the opportunity. Vinson is the only player on the Minutemen other than Williams who has scored 20+ more than once this season.
The player: 6-10, 250 pound sophomore center Cady LaLanne
The numbers: 8.6/7.1/0.2 on .568/.111/.731
More numbers: 6.7% block%, 116.2 ORtg, 15.8% OR (15th nationally)
The words: LaLanne will be one of the closest things to a fair matchup that Travis Taylor sees all year. The sophomore has only just moved into a starting role, but his relative quickness and relentless effort on the glass make him a legitimate threat to destroy an opponents gameplan. LaLanne is young and so is prone to the odd really poor offensive night, but he's been in double figures seven of his last 11 games and pulled in double doubles in two of his last three.
Raphiael Putney is the big name coming off the bench for the Minutemen. Putney was the player replaced when LaLanne hit the starting lineup, and for good reason. Coming off a year in which he shot .477/.373/.636 Putney has spent this year going .402/.271/.800. Being a 6-9, 185 pick and pop four only works if you occasionally make it. 6-8 sophomore Maxie Esho will also come off the bench for Kellogg. Not much of a threat offensively (5.8 ppg), Esho crashes the glass well (9.8% OR) and blocks a shot per game.
- Taylor or LaLanne? Travis Taylor has been on a roll of late, but Cady LaLanne has a good stretch of his own going. They can't both dominate the paint, so one big man will end up having to eventually cede to the other. Watch for Jeff Robinson and Sampson Carter in supporting roles to have chances to impact the game.
- Will Semaj handle the pace? In a slower game against Memphis, Christon took excellent care of the ball and, shooting woes aside, had a good game. In a fast paced game against VCU, Semaj turned the ball over 10 times and looked nearly as dazed as a concussed Dee Davis. This game is going to be fast again, so Xavier's star freshman will again be forced to make good decisions on the fly.
- Will can happen? The Memphis win was a nice morale boost, but it didn't help Xavier in the here and now. This game, on the other hand, can. Xavier could still grab the last first round bye available in Brooklyn, but they'll need some help. Keep an eye on the Richmond-Dayton and VCU-Butler scores. A VCU win combined with a Xavier win would put the Musketeers level with Butler and, mostly likely, Temple (playing URI) in a tie for that last spot. If Butler and Richmond both win and Xavier loses, things get ugly.
- Run well: Xavier proved against VCU that they can run well if they pick their spots and don't get sucked into a fast pace. Those spots will be available again against UMass. If Xavier can hit the Minutemen on the break a few times they can make the speed of the game play to their advantage.
- Take care of the ball: The Musketeers turn the ball over on 20.4% of their possessions. If they can drop that number to the 18.9% that UMass forces, their chances of winning increase dramatically. The Minutemen are only 5-7 when their opponents stay under that 18.9% mark. They are 12-2 when teams go over that season average point.
- Build: Memphis may not have been the resume capping win that it could have been, but it was a win over a decent team on an 18 game run. If Xavier is looking to start building some momentum to close this season, this is the time to do it.