A year ago today, Xavier was clinging to a tenuous position on the bubble that would start to become ever more hopeless as conference losses accumulated. This year is a different animal altogether. Deep and talented, Xavier has wins in hand against quality opponents such as UC, Tennessee, and Georgetown. Showdowns with Villanova and a suddenly dangerous Providence squad loom on the horizon, as well as rematches against Marquette, Georgetown, and Creighton. Other than the disaster in the Bahamas, Xavier's only loss has come at Creighton. Where last year was distinctly sinking by the middle of January, the fates have dealt Xavier a much kinder hand this time around.
In a league as deep in quality as the Big East, there aren't really any off nights. DePaul, at 131st in the Pomeroy rankings, is currently the weakest link in the chain, but even that mediocre rating is better than four of the teams Xavier would have been facing off against had they stayed in the A-10. This campaign has been a disappointing one for the Oliver Purnell's squad, as chances for early-season resume wins against Wichita State, Texas, Arizona State instead turned into losses by 18, 18, and 22. DePaul is currently 2-4 in conference, with a 2OT win at Butler and a home victory over St. John's offset by losses at Georgetown, at Marquette, at home against Creighton, and at Villanova.
You might expect that a team like DePaul would have a myriad of problems, but their problems on offense are really only two: they can't shoot and they keep turning the ball over. They cought it up on a little over 20% of their possessions, and their decent 35% from beyond the arc is offest by the fact that they take only 24% of their attempts from that range and shoot only 46.8% from inside the arc. They're a very good offensive rebounding team (OReb% 36%, 56th in the nation), which keeps their offense just about average, but they're ultimately undermined by the aforementioned flaws.
Defensively, DePaul profiles as a team that eschews traditional principles for big plays. They are 94th in the nation in forcing turnovers, 91st in getting steals, and 66th in block%. If underpinned by solid principles, those would be part of a very good defense. Instead, they are poor defensive rebounding team and are 224th in the nation in EFG% allowed. Their 2PFG% allowed of 50.8 is particularly poor and is probably part of the reason opponents take a below-average number of shots from outside. Like their offense, DePaul's defense does enough things poorly that they undermine the good work they perform in other areas.
DePaul is an extremely tall team, with an effective height of +3.4" and an average height of 6'6". They get about an average percentage of their minutes from the bench. It's also probably instructive to note that their defensive possessions are 49th-fastest in the nation, indicating that they like to pressure the other team into make quick decisions, for good or ill.
The player: 6'4", 192-pound guard Brandon Young
The numbers: 14.5/3.9/4.1 on .448/.236/.660 shooting
More numbers: 24.3% usage rate, 24.9% assist rate, 2.8% steal%
The words: Young has exceptional size for a ball-handling guard and is a potential matchup problem for most opponent points. He is a capable scorer from at the rim and mid-range, but his game sufferes when forced to shoot it beyond the arc. If he's getting his own shot off the bounce, he prefers to pull up more than attempting to get all the way to the rim, and his success rate on two-point jumpers is 40.5%, well above the national average of 34.9%.
The player: 6'3", 184-pound guard Charles McKinney
The numbers: 4.6/1.9/1.3 on .582/.000/.577 shooting
More numbers: 3.6% steal percentage, 13.8% usage rate, 58.2% EFG%
The words: McKinney took a couple of DNPs back in December and has only recently fought his way back into the lineup, but he's a defensive menace who is efficient but underused on the offensive end. His size will pose an interesting problem for Xavier, as Dee Davis is generously listed at 6' and Brandon Randolph is only an inch or so larger. It should also be noted that nobody who suits up for DePaul turns the ball over more frequently than McKinney, which may be why his teammates are so loathe to lend it to him.
The player: 6'5", 194-pound guard Billy Garrett, Jr.
The numbers: 11.5/2.4/3.5 on .346/.289/.869 shooting
More numbers: 23.5% assist rate, 19.2% TO%, 40.8% EFG%
The words: Garrett is kind of an interesting player. Looking at his assist rate and TO percentage, it's not hard to argue that he makes very good decisions with the basketball. On the other hand, the worst decision he makes seems to be not giving it up, as his shooting percentages are deplorable but he still lifts like AI in his prime. His free-throw percentage hints at a guy who can shoot the ball and is just struggling to figure out when and where is most appropriate. Until then, though, he'll be kind of a liability when he chooses to pull. Also, he's a poor rebounder for a man his size.
The player: 6'8", 208-pound forward Cleveland Melvin
The numbers: 16.3/6.4/1.0 on .467/.470/.635 shooting
More numbers: 8.3% OReb%, 5% block%, 2.3 fouls per 40 minutes
The words: Melvin is a senior big who knows how to score the basketball from all over the place. He has made more threes than any Muskie and has more offensive rebounds than any Xavier player not named Matt Stainbrook. He is the focal point of the DePaul offense and a very efficient scorer. On the other end, he's merely servicable on the defensive glass but is a good shot blocker who manages to avoid foul trouble.
The player: 6'10", 284-pound forward Tommy Hamilton IV
The numbers: 9.4/5.2/0.9 on .428/.516/.759 shooting
More numbers: 3.1% block%, 16-31 from three, 7.1% assist rate
The words: Tommy Hamilton IV weighs 284 pounds and hits almost a three per game. It's basically like watching Ron Rollerson spot up and bomb away. He is not a great rebounder or passer, but he can score from inside and out and finish at the free throw line. He also blocks a good amount of shots, which I'm frankly looking forward to seeing. Also, my man's 6'10", 284 and loves to shoot threes. Do you, Tommy Hamilton IV
If you remember Sandi Marcius from when Xavier crossed paths with Purdue, you'll no doubt be elated to see the 6'10" center pulling 5 and 5 in 18.5 minutes per game off the bench. He's a great offensive rebounder and servicable shot blocker. Guard Durrell McDonald comes off the bench for 4.8 per game; he seldom shoots from deep but is connecting on 45% of his threes this year. Six-foot-nine big man Greg Sequele basically exists for his 9.1 minutes per game, and nobody else offers more than six minutes to Oliver Purnell's efforts.
-Can Dee match up? I hate to do this after I wrote that article praising him Friday, but Dee is not the tallest dude (you may have noticed) and DePaul's guards are big and ball-hungry. Dee has been taking care of the ball very well of late, but bigger, more physical guards have troubled him in the past. On the other end, he is capable of holding his own against bigger opponents, but if one of DePaul's guards gets hot, Semaj may have to be called upon to help.
-Is JMart for real this time? If noted author Martin Cruz Smith is to be believed, Russian folklore tells a story of an imp who can only be seen out of the corner of your eye. If you try to look right at him, he disappears. Likewise, everytime JMart goes on one of these bursts of viable play, I feel like examining it too much almost guarantees it disappears. If he goes from a guy you've gotta take game-by-game to a guy you can count out, Xavier is suddenly incredibly dangerous.
-What will the refs do? At the start of this season, much was made of a new set of rules that was supposed to emphasize freedom of movement for players with the ball. It was not entirely consistently applied even then, and the thing seems to have utter disappeared as the conference season has heated up. Xavier's game against Georgetown was a glorified brawl at times, but then touch fouls were getting called at half court. If the refs keep it tight, that favors the deeper Muskies. If they decide they want to see blood, Dee Davis is going to have his work cut out for him.
-Help to the post. Melvin and Hamilton are both ineffective post passers, boasting matching assist rates of 7.1%. Marcius is even worse at 2.3%. None of those three guys is really keen on finding ways to move the ball around after they catch it, but each of them is willing to try to score and capable of making it happen. If Xavier's guards and wings dig to the post, DePaul's big men don't figure to be capable of hurting X with their ball movement skills.
-Hold DePaul to one-and-done. The saving grace of the Blue Demons's offense has been their ability to get to the glass for second chances. They turn the ball over too much and don't shoot particularly well, so they rely on their bigs keeping possessions alive to keep the ship afloat. If Stainbrook, Philmore, et al. can grab the first miss of a possession and get it out to a guard, that will portend well for Xavier's chances at holding their offense at bay.
-Attack the middle of the floor. I haven't actually seen DePaul play this year, but they profile as a team that is looking to force you into mistakes on the offensive end. Fortunately, Xavier has a 6'10" bastion of ball control that stands over stormy defensive seas like a lighthouse guiding guards to safe harbor. Whether in the half or full court, it would behoove Xavier to get the ball to Stainbrook in the middle of the floor to avoid allowing DePaul to trap and force turnovers. Find the big man and let him look over the defense and make the right decision. The rest will work itself out.