Xavier, if you hadn't noticed, is as hot a ticket as they've been in quite some time. It's not that the team has never been ranked higher (they have) or gone on longer winning streaks (they've done that, too), but they've come out of the gates so impressively this year that even ESPN has had to acknowledge what's going on. Sitting at 7-0 and looking for all the world like a contender for the Big East, the Muskies have outpaced all but the most optimistic projections for their season so far.
Western Kentucky is off to a more checkered start. They opened the season by winning point with the Banners staff with a beat down of NAIA Campbellsville University, the scourge of the Mid-South. The Hilltoppers hung with Belmont and beat Stony Brook, both top-100 opponents, but they've also lost to a bad Drake team and beaten an even worse Eastern Kentucky by two at home. It has been hit or miss with Western.
|Cinci Bell Fioptics
WKU is the 7th-best three-point shooting team in the nation. That 44.4% from deep as a team really jumps off the page at you. They don't rely on it, shooting them at just above an average rate, but maybe they should. They're a solid shooting team from inside the arc, and they avoid turning the ball over pretty well. Offensive rebounding and getting to the line are definite weaknesses.
There are 351 D1 teams. WKU is 351st in defensive steal% and 343rd in defensive TO%. They also defend the arc really poorly. In fact, they have the defensive numbers of a team that stands all five guys within 12 feet of the bucket, except that they're barely above average at two-point field goal percentage defense and profoundly poor at defensive rebounding. I'm starting to think these guys may not be great at defense.
|McNeal is the straw that stirs the drink. He can shoot it a little bit but rarely does. Mostly he's on the court to facilitate the offense and not turn the ball over, and he does both pretty well.
|Cosby has hit 20 threes and 8 buckets from inside the arc, just to give you some idea of what we're working with here. He pretty much plays catch-and-shoot from wherever he gets the ball. He doesn't rebound much, assists even less, and rarely turns the ball over.
|Edmond lives to attack off the dribble. He has been really efficient this year whether going all the way to the rim or working the pull-up game. Despite that, he's not much for getting to the line. Like Snipes, he's much better on the defensive glass than the offensive.
|A guy named Snipes better be able to shoot, and this one can. He has hit more threes than twos this year and he shoots them both really well. He's not a great offensive rebounder and he doesn't put the ball on the deck much, but he can really lift.
|Johnson is undersized for a center, but he flies to the glass, especially on the offensive end. That 3P% comes on 1-1, so he's not a concern from deep. He does draw a lot of fouls, which is concerning for obvious reasons.
Six-foot guard Chris Harrison-Docks is the one to look out for here. He's shooting .377/.410/.700 and scoring 9 a game. He comes off the bench looking to get shots up and has hit 16 threes this year. Beyond him, Marlon Hunter is a freshman guard not doing much in his 12 minutes per game, and Ben Lawson is a 7'1", 230-pound junior who rebounds pretty well but is not a focal point of the offense. Bench depth is not a strength for this team.
- Control the game: WKU doesn't turn anyone over and Xavier takes care of the ball relatively well. There's no reason for the Musketeers to get involved in a game being played differently than they'd like it to be. The Hilltoppers shouldn't be able to do anything defensively that keeps X from running the sets they'd like in the time they'd like.
- Clamp down on Justin Johnson: Johnson has WKU's second highest offensive efficiency and their highest usage rate by nearly three percent. He generates a lot of that on his own with effort on the offensive glass, so he theoretically plays right in Xavier's hands. Keep Johnson from hammering the offensive glass and WKU loses a large portion of their offense.
- Don't repeat NKU: Xavier's conquest of the Kentucky directionals comes to close today. (EKU was apparently busy this year). Against Northern Kentucky Xavier came out flat, was flat through the middle, and finished flat. It was a demonstration in barely effective apathy. Western isn't a great team, but they are significantly better than the Norse. Xavier can't just sleepwalk through another game.
- Can Coach Mack motivate the team? You may recognize this as following off the same idea as the final of the three keys. Coach Mack has no issue getting his guys ready for big games; Xavier has dominated quality opponents this year. Against Miami, Missouri, and NKU, though, the Musketeers have only won by an average of 11 points. Yes, that's still a healthy margin, but it reflects the relative lack of focus that the team has brought to those contests when compared to the 18 point average margin against top 50 teams.
- Will JP get involved early? Part of the reason that Xavier didn't destroy NKU was that their spark plug/master antagonist JP Macura could hardly have looked less enthusiastic about being there. JP's teammates clear love his all-out effort style of play and it serves to occasionally snap the team out of a funk. When JP can't be bothered to do his thing, that's reflected in the team.
- What can be gained in this game? Not an RPI or SOS boost, that's for sure. There's a win on the table if Xavier can take it, but the Musketeers need to get more than that from this game. Demonstrate that they can dominate inside on offense, knock down some three pointers, suffocate a mediocre offense, get Jalen really rolling, get Makinde, Kaiser, and Sean O'Mara more comfortable on the floor. All of that can happen in a game like this, but only if the Musketeers commit themselves to actually playing.