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Xavier v. Auburn: preview, matchups, keys to the game

Last year's road leg of this matchup was a frustrating double-OT loss for the Musketeers. This year Xavier is playing much better and the game is at Cintas.

Let's have lots more of this this year.
Let's have lots more of this this year.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier has had immense momentum basically from the word go this season. The Muskies are one of just eight remaining undefeated teams, riding a 10-0 record to a top 10 ranking in both polls and boasting a statistical profile that computer systems really love. The almost routinely deflating annual Thanksgiving trip passed by without a hitch. The potentially tricky Crosstown Shootout turned into another exercise in revisionist press conferencing by Mick Cronin. Now the dreaded exam week is up to take its best shot at derailing the Musketeers. Oh, and Auburn is in town.

Bruce Pearl's team will play just nine game before the beginning of conference season. Seven games in, their record sits at a healthy 5-2, but their best win is a one-point home victory over UAB, who will do well to get onto the NIT bubble this year. Auburn has played two top-100 teams and lost to them both by seven points. Last year this contest was a road loss in overtime that saw the last ride of Brandon Randolph. Things have changed significantly since then.

Team fingerprint:

There is one little wrinkle in the preparation for an otherwise perfunctory home game: Auburn can really shoot the three. They take more than 40% of their shots from behind the arc and are connecting at a 40.1% clip right now. Three-point shooting is just the high point of what is actually a fairly solid offense; the Tigers hang in the top 100 in the nation in ball security and two-point shooting and are a slightly above average rebounding team. Free throw shooting has been miserable, with the team clocking in at 65.1% from the stripe. The average Auburn offensive possession is 15 seconds from taking control of the ball to either a shot or a turnover; this is a team that loves to get out and push the pace.

Auburn's defense, on the other hand, is just flat out bad. They're 203rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency right now, and that comes down to a complete inability to control anything that goes on inside the arc. They are only slightly above average in challenging threes and forcing turnovers, but it all unspools the closer to the rim you go. They're a pedestrian offensive rebounding team, they're 222nd in the country in two-point FG% allowed, and they send teams to the line at an above-average clip. Once the ball gets inside, the Tigers are in a world of trouble.


Starting matchups
Junior Class Freshman
6'1", 185 Measurements 6'6", 185
19.3/2.7/6.0 Game Line 10.6/2.7/3.1
.449/.426/.840 Shooting Line .439/.389/.691
Xavier was recruiting Canty for a while, but the Muskies eventually settled on Dee Davis and then Semaj Christon. Canty has bounced around a little bit but has developed into one of the top PG in the nation this year. His assist rate of 35.2% and turnover rate of 11.4% are both excellent, and he can score from beyond the arc or in the mid-range. For what it's worth, he's not much of a defender.
Junior Class Junior
6'5", 174 Measurements 6'2", 188
13.4/3/3.3 Game Line 11.1/3.6/2.8
.514/.385/.632 Shooting Line .414/.385/.931
Dunans is a great foil for Canty in that he is a good defender and doesn't need a lot of the ball. When he gets it on offense though, he's a strong driver with a good pull-up game. He can also score from beyond the arc if given room off the catch or the dribble.
Sophomore Class Senior
6'7", 200 Measurements 6'4", 185
7.3/2.3/0.4 Game Line 7.0/1.4/2.2
.567/.545/.833 Shooting Line .340/.227/.880
Despite an ORtg on 153.5 (3rd in the nation) and an EFG% of 76.7%, Lang doesn't get many looks at it in Auburn's offense. His usage rate of 9.6% is almost comically low, especially for not only a starter but a guy getting buckets at the clip he is. He's more or less a catch-and-shoot player, but teams would be wise not to leave him alone.
Senior Class Sophomore
6'7", 250 Measurements 6'6", 215
13.0/9.7/1.1 Game Line 15.9/8.1/2.2
.418/.417/.638 Shooting Line .467/.472/.690
Bowers is a beast of a man who is difficult to budge when he gets good rebounding position. He draws 7 fouls per 40 minutes of thanks in part to his immense bulk in the lane. Puzzlingly, he takes more than a third of his shots from away from the rim despite being a very efficient scorer in the lane and only shooting 8-24 on jumpers.
Senior Class Junior
6'10", 228 Measurements 6'10", 238
17/9.1/1.9 Game Line 10.3/6.7/1.0
.525/.286/.647 Shooting Line .479/.500/.727
Though not quite on the same level as Jalmes Farrnolds, Harris is every bit the rebounder his raw numbers suggest, and he gets after it on the glass at both ends. He also draws more than 7 fouls per 40 minutes played, which is a concern for obvious reasons.


Horace Spencer is a 6'9", 220-pound freshman big man who is a monster on the glass at both ends. He's good for 4.6/6.3/0.6 per game and boasts an impressive block% of 10.2%. He's not much of an offensive threat; more than half his made buckets are on stickbacks. Bryce Brown is the other big contributor off the bench, going for 8.8/1.5/0.3 on .450/.394/.571 shooting. He hits threes and doesn't do a heck of a lot else (except foul).

A couple of other upperclassmen to keep an eye on are Tahj Shamsid-Deen and Jordon Granger. Shamsid-Deen has struggled to get minutes as he fights through an injury to his right (non-shooting) shoulder. When healthy he's a decent reserve option at the point. Granger hasn't been getting minutes because apparently Bruce Pearl doesn't think he's the best option. He's a 6'8", 220-pound senior who isn't a great shooter and has never been able to board it much. He gets about 12 minutes per game to rest Harris and Bowers and that's about all there is to him right now.

Three questions:

-Can Xavier come out sharp? In the balance between finals week, practicing basketball, and sleeping, something has to give. Ed Sumner tweeted today that he was functioning on zero hours of sleep, so I guess we know what choice he made. Coming off a week-long layoff after a hugely emotional win, having just wrapped finals, and having everyone talk up the next game as a trap game, Xavier has some obstacles to being fully effective from the tip on Saturday. Getting locked in early without the student section there could be a challenge.

-Can the big men stay out of foul trouble? Sean O'Mara averages 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes of play, which means that, of Xavier's four primary true bigs (O'Mara, London, Reynolds, and Farr), he would accumulate the fewest fouls if left in there the whole game. Every one of those four big men would foul out before the final horn, and Makinde and Jalen average more than 6 fouls per 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Harris and Bowers both draw a ton of fouls. Xavier has the advantage inside, but they won't if they end the game with Trevon and JP playing the 4 and 5.

-Can Xavier make Auburn's thin bench pay? Auburn basically has two players who can come off the bench and give contributions beyond just occupying a jersey. If Pearl goes deeper than that on the bench, there's a real chance that he's not going to get a lot of production. Xavier has been able to draw a lot of fouls in 9 of their 10 games; if they can do it again Saturday there will be a chance to turn this one into a blowout.

Three keys:

-Dominate the paint. Auburn is going to shoot a lot of threes. Some of them are going to go in, maybe all right in a row. It's just the law of large numbers. When UC made their mini-run last weekend by hitting a couple of threes in succession, Xavier staved them off by being able to control the middle of the floor on both ends. Auburn's big men are more overtly threatening on offense than UC's, but their interior defense is much weaker. Xavier can afford to concede the arc on defense if they win the battle inside it on both ends.

-Control the pace. Auburn loves to try to turn the game into a track meet, taking a third of their field goal attempts in transition and posting an EFG% of 64.5% when on the go. Auburn doesn't run much off of made baskets, so obviously scoring is the best way to go here. Barring that, Xavier needs to be attentive the Tigers' tendency to get out off of misses.

-Get Trevon going. This is Xavier's last home game before the Big East opener, which happens to be at Villanova. Coach Mack said after Tre made one basket against UC that he doesn't worry about Bluiett's confidence on the offensive end, but this game would be an opportunity to get him back on track before going on the road to Wake and then jumping headlong into the Big East season. Once conference play starts, Xavier is going to need him to be at his best.