Prior to the Butler game of just a week ago, I wrote "Joe Lunardi currently has X as a 10 seed, but you can bet that will drop if they add a third bad loss. These are the kind of games the Musketeers came to the Big East to avoid and, thankfully, there are only two left." After a week in which Xavier destroyed the Bulldogs and then played a dreadful game in losing to Marquette, the situation remains the same. Xavier is still projected as a ten seed, a third bad loss would still cripple them, and this is the second of those two anchor games.
DePaul is, amazingly, even worse than Butler. They've not won in conference for over a month, and they've not really even given anyone a scare along the way. Leading scorer Cleveland Melvin, a senior forward, was suspended after the Xavier game and then abruptly left the team, and the school, under mysterious circumstances. According to Coach Oliver Purnell "I can't make any comments because of privacy acts and that kind of thing, but the bottom line is he's no longer a part of our team and we've got to move on." While the circumstances surrounding Melvin leaving aren't, what is clear is that the Blue Demons are a team hanging by a thread. Recent articles in the DePaulia (the student newspaper) have even called for a complete tear down and re-evaluation of the basketball program.
What do you say about a team that is now playing without its main cog? Even with Melvin, the Blue Demons were appalling on offense. Since conference play started their offensive efficiency rating is 97.9. For some scope of reference that means DePaul is playing offense roughly as well as Grambling State, Wagner, and Tennessee Tech. None of those teams are currently highly regarded. In the nine offensive categories ranked on KenPom, DePaul is last in the conference in five of them, ninth in another, and eighth in one. Only in offensive rebounding do they even move the needle, grabbing 35.5% of their copious misses, good for 51st in the nation.
This is usually where a transition sentence about making up for that with improved defense or something like that goes. That's not the case with DePaul, who might somehow be even worse on defense. The 116.6 defensive efficiency rating they've managed in conference play would put them in the discussion for worst in the nation. Teams shoot over 55% inside the arc, over 40% outside the arc, and collect almost 31% of their misses against the Demons. The Blue Demons do rank third in the conference in steal rate and fourth in block rate, but it honestly doesn't matter that much. This is one of the very worst defensive teams you are likely to ever lay eyes on.
If you've been around Banners much you know that here is where we usually break down the players that will start and come off the bench for the opposition. I learned from Bambi though, that if I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all. Therefore, we're going to take a more in depth look at what Xavier needs to do.
- Can Xavier play good defense? DePaul is dreadful on offense, so it's possible that a number in the 50s could happen here without a whole lot of clamping down on the part of the Musketeers. That's not good enough. Xavier just played a game against a Marquette team that isn't great on offense (though on a different planet from the Demons), and threw up their least efficient defensive evening of the year.
The dates of the worst four games of defense Xavier has played this year? Feb 15th, Feb 3rd, Jan 25th, and Jan 12th. The last time Xavier's defensive efficiency was below 100 (and the lower, the better) and they weren't playing Butler was the last time they played DePaul on January 20th. Prior to that it was in 2013. This team isn't playing good defense right now, and they need to find it soon. If the Blue Demons take more than 15 threes, start throwing things, because that will be an indication the Musketeers are getting sloppy again.
- Does Xavier have it in them to kill someone off? This would be a great time for Coach Mack to rest a few players before a brutal stretch run. Unfortunately, the Musketeers haven't done well at stepping on the throat of a downed opponent this year. The last meeting between these two teams was a 10 point game that shouldn't have been that close. Butler has all but ceded their season and still managed to keep the most recent game from becoming a total rout (kind of). Xavier even comprehensively outplayed Marquette on Saturday but let stupid mistakes turn what should have been a win on the trot into a loss. The last time Xavier well and truly blasted someone was the Crosstown Shootout.
And that needs to happen again at 7pm on Wednesday. Xavier probably can't do anything in this game to make their fans feel better about them as the season goes on. Make no mistake, the Musketeers should win this game easily. They need to do it in a way that shows some musculature. Another 10 point victory or, even worse, a game in which the Demons still see fit to foul at the end to extend and Xavier will have done nothing to make anyone think the recent blip isn't a slump into something far more serious. Xavier needs to win this one running away to catch the eye of any selection committee members scanning the dial on Wednesday night,
- What is this team made of? Xavier came off a convincing win over a moribund Butler with a great chance to grab a road win over a team they should beat. Instead, they came out and played in a way that can only be described as lax. Bad coaching accounts for the three point defense, but plays almost no role in 19 turnovers. The Musketeers bounced back after they flamed out so spectacularly in the Bahamas, but they've not shown that kind of resolve in coming off the mat after dropping three straight in the conference. Beating Providence at home and then beating Butler anywhere doesn't prove anything.
And that's not to say that winning this game will prove anything either, but the Musketeers need to build some positive momentum. They need to look like a team that wants nothing more than to win a game. Yes, they could coast through this and still win it, DePaul is that bad, but doing that should set alarm bells ringing in Xavier Nation. If you were going to skip catching this game because it should be a blowout, don't. If the Musketeers don' t come out looking driven, it's time to start asking questions about everyone.
What to watch for:
- Dee Davis shooting threes: Xavier runs at its best on offense when the little guard has time to shoot. If Dee is letting fly early and often, it means the offense is clicking.
- Justin Martin looking like he cares: That's not going to happen, but Martin playing like he cares would be a big boost. Against Marquette it was Justin who just kept fighting. If he shakes off the late errors and comes to play again it could mean that Xavier finally has that supporting guy.
- Matt Stainbrook taking at least ten shots: This one could/should get ugly early. Seeing the guards have the discipline to keep feeding the big man would be nice.
- James Farr: He can't defend on the ball worth much, but Farr is instant offense (highest efficiency rating on the team), rebounds like a maniac, blocks shots, and steals the ball at the third highest rate on the team. I'm not sure what Coach Mack is proving by leaving him on the bench, but I hope the point has been made.
- Jalen Reynolds foul/minute count: As Andrew pointed out, Reynolds has stopped slapping people quite so much recently. Jalen playing intelligently enough to get himself 18-20 minutes would give Xavier a weapon off the bench that hardly any other team in the nation can match.
- Coaching adjustments: Oliver Purnell knows his team cannot win playing Xavier straight up. If he hasn't given up, he'll try something else. That could be the four corners, a full court press, three pointers in the first six seconds of the shot clock, or something equally radical. Coach Mack and his staff have got to be ready to adjust. Mack's detractors point out his game management as a great weakness. If DePaul pulls something out of the hat and somehow stays in this game, Mack's supporters will have less and less ammunition to answer.