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Xavier v. Alabama: Preview

Xavier needs to bounce back after the usual Thanksgiving mess. The team that comes to the Cintas wears the same uniform as last year's opponent, but plays a vastly different game.

Anthony Grant, probably preaching defense.
Anthony Grant, probably preaching defense.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Last year Xavier went to Alabama riding the high of a blowout win over crosstown rivals Cincinnati. The Musketeers were in the middle of what would become an eight game winning streak, and came storming back to knock off the Crimson Tide on the road. That game signaled the end of Myles Davis effectiveness for the year but catapulted the team into the Big East on decidedly the right foot.

This year, things are a bit different. For starters, Xavier has lost their last two games, and hasn't looked particularly good in either. It's easy to blame a general apathy for the loss to LBSU, but that doesn't explain the defensive issues against UTEP and really shouldn't explain losing to a team as bad as The Beach. Last year, Xavier and Alabama were withing four KenPom ranking spots when they met, this year the Musketeers hold what should be a decided advantage, at least by the numbers. On top of that advantage, Xavier also gets to host the game this year.

On a visceral level, this feels like a game that Xavier needs to win. Missouri and Auburn continue the SEC theme after IUPUI, but none of those three teams is likely to do much to a resume besides provide a potentially damaging loss. Alabama is a good team that could end up very much in the mix themselves. Winning here to bounce back after the usual Thanksgiving debacle would feel like, if not actually indicate, a strong step back in the right direction.

Team fingerprint:

The Crimson Tide have played two decent teams this year. A loss to Iowa St. was followed the next day by a win over Arizona St. What immediately jumps out is that this Alabama team still plays defense at an above average level. The Tide are currently 85th with a defensive efficiency of 95.5. Those numbers aren't gaudy, but they are enough to keep 'Bama in most games. Where the Tide get hurt is inside the arc, where they allow an incredible 52.6% field goal percentage. That stacks up directly against the 58.9% (seventh in the nation) that Xavier shoots from inside the arc. Alabama isn't a particularly small team, +0.9 in effective height, but they also get beaten up on the offensive glass, allowing 29.7% of misses to be rebounded.

Offensively, Alabama is playing fast this year. They rank 49th in the nation in adjusted tempo and 80th in the nation in possession length, averaging just 16.8 seconds with the ball. Last year they were 301st and 268th in those same categories, so this represents a sea change. Alabama is also effective inside the arc, shooting 53.4% (Xavier allows 46.4%) and inefficient behind the arc, where they shoot only 32.4%. More pertinently, the Tide take 39.5% of their field goal attempts as threes. Assuming that they get the same boost everyone else does from Xavier's behind the arc defense, that rate could spell serious trouble.

Justin Coleman Point Guard Dee Davis
Freshman Class Senior
5'10", 160 Measurements 6'0", 160
7.0/1.2/2.2 Game Line 8.0/1.1/6.0
.333/.250/.889 Shooting Line .385/.286/.769
Coleman is far from a staple in 'Bama's lineup, playing only about 57% of all available minutes. He uses that time to… not do all that much, actually. He came off the bench in their last game, which allowed him to grab a season high 11 points, so look for backup Ricky Tarrant early and often.

Levi Randolph Shooting Guard Remy Abell
Senior Class Junior
6'5", 208 Measurements 6'4", 200
19.5/6.2/2.5 Game Line 8.4/1.6/2.3
.536/.412/.973 Shooting Line .581/.235/.500
Randolph gets baskets by the boatload when he is on. He is currently in the top 20 nationally in offensive rating, and the shooting numbers speak for themselves. He is also an above average defender and ball handler so Abell, who came billed as a stopper, will have his work cut out for him here.

Rodney Cooper Small Forward Trevon Bluiett
Senior Class Freshman
6'6", 218 Measurements 6'6", 215
12.3/3.7/1.2 Game Line 16.0/5.3/2.0
.520/.435/.857 Shooting Line .557/.500/.864
Cooper is another player that will give Xavier trouble. He doesn't score a lot, but that is mostly down to his low usage rate. When he does score, it is efficiently, although he does not take many trips to the line, having a season high of 4 free throws. He is, however Alabama's best threat from downtown, which should be of concern given how Xavier has defended the perimeter recently.

Shannon Hale Power Forward James Farr
Sophomore Class Junior
6'8", 226 Measurements 6'10", 237
9.2/4.2/1.8 Game Line 5.4/7.7/0.4
.409/.176/.762 Shooting Line .386/.267/.000
Hale is a big force for Alabama on defense, not only at getting stops, but at securing the rebounds off said stops. He is the Tide's second best defensive rebounder and, for a team that is fairly middle of the road on the boards, that is valuable. Hale is good but not spectacular on the offensive end, and has fired up almost 3 attempts per game from 3 point range.

Jimmie Taylor Center Matt Stainbrook
Sophomore Class Senior
6'10", 240 Measurements 6'10", 270
5.2/5.8/0.8 Game Line 16.0/8.1/2.4
.538/.000/.375 Shooting Line .726/.500/.750
Taylor is a menace in the lane on defense, ranking among the top 100 shot blockers in the country. What he does not do well is score the ball. Taylor is a solid rebounder on both ends of the court, but he is simply not a priority on the offensive end, and his inability to convert from the line hampers him as well.

In reserve, Alababma has Tulane transfer PG Ricky Tarrant, who actually plays more minutes than Coleman, and for good reason. Tarrant is in the top 100 nationally in steals and getting to the free throw line, where he converts at a 82% rate, contributing 14.0/2.3/2.2 to the cause, although he is a fairly poor shooter. Next up is PF Riley Norris, who is just off Jimmie Taylor's pace on the offensive boards. Although he scoops up 10% of Alabama's misses, he only manages to shoot 38% from 2 point range. Rounding out the people getting 15 or more minutes a game is 6'9" Swiss big Michael Kessens. Kessens is a Sophomore who will turn 24(!) this season, and does a lot decently, but nothing terribly well.

Three Keys:

-Close Down the Perimeter- Alabama has a pair of outside players in Randolph and Cooper who can burn an opponent who gives them space outside the arc. Since Xavier has been getting burned by teams who don't have shooters of this pair's caliber, it is essential to keep on them at all times. Randolph is especially dangerous as Alabama's go-to guy, and X will need to focus to keep him in check.

-Beat up the Boards- Alabama allowed 12 offensive rebounds to an Arizona State team nearly 2 inches shorter in effective height than Xavier. Xavier's comeback at Alabama last season was fueled by Stainbrook and Philmore's ability to get to the class offensively, and for Xavier to control the game, they will need the second chance points that are there for the taking.

-Don't Send Them to the Line- Alabama is the third best free throw shooting team in the country, and the reason they survived Arizona State was because the Sun Devils handed Alabama 26 points at the line that night. Their only loss of the season came against Iowa State, against whom they only managed 13 attempts from the line. With a team as good from outside as Alabama, the last thing Xavier needs is to be giving them free points on free throws.

Three questions:

- Can Xavier shut down the three? The Musketeers are just getting torched from behind the arc this year. Only 64 of the 351 NCAA DI basketball programs take more of their shots from deep than the Crimson Tide, so that defense is going to be tested again. San Diego (23), UTEP (20), and LBSU (22) all lifted at will from deep. Alabama already has the predilection to heave and must be licking their lips at the thought of facing Xavier's porous perimeter right now.

- Who will control the pace? Xavier certainly has the athletes to run, but the team's most efficient scorer matches up very well with the Alabama defense. If Xavier can slow the pace and feed Matt Stainbrook, they can perhaps limit the barrage of threes on the other end. Add Bluiett in working off of Stainbrook and there is plenty of reason to think that Xavier would prefer to keep this game contested in the half court offenses.

- Will Coach Mack adjust? Xavier getting obliterated from deep is not a new story. Neither is the ball stopping on offense. Both were in evidence against LBSU and both have to be fixed for Xavier to get a win at home. It's also worth watching to see if in game adjustments need to be made. If the team isn't focusing on the paint, will the coaching staff take the time to make sure the ball gets inside?