There comes a point at the start of every undefeated season where a fan has to rationalize what is happening in a most irrational way. The odds of running the table in college basketball are minuscule, but no fan wants his team to actually drop a game. As 6-0, 8-0, 10-0 approach, he has to decide if losing now so as not to be undefeated entering the tournament is worth it. This, of course, makes little actual sense in the cold light of day, but it happens.
Xavier is now 6-0 and has gotten there without two key players and without playing particularly good basketball all the time. Standing between them and seven straight wins are the 104th ranked Bison of North Dakota State. 5-2 overall but only 3-2 against DI competition, NDSU still represents yet another stern test. If Xavier does hit that irrational bargaining point of the season, it won’t be because they steamrolled easy opponents.
The Bison are slow. They play offense slowly, and they greatly prefer to play defense slowly as well. Offensively, that ponderous pace comes because they want to shoot inside the arc if at all possible. The Bison don’t take care of the ball well at all, which tends not to gibe well with the general perception of a team that doesn’t shoot well or often from deep. A further look at their poor shooting from the line, their tendency to get shots blocked or the ball stolen, and their inability to be effective on the glass suggests that maybe they go slowly for fear of what will happen when they have the ball.
Defensively, that slowing of the pace plays far more into what NDSU wants to do. They force turnovers only slightly worse than the Musketeers, attack shooters inside the arc, steal the ball at a higher rate than all but 18 other teams in the nation, and have a block rate in the top 50. About the only thing North Dakota doesn’t do well on defense is close possessions out on the glass.
|Khy Kabellis||Point Guard||Edmond Sumner|
|6'5", 185||Measurements||6'6", 186|
|The most notable thing about Kabellis as a point guard is his 31.1% turnover rate. That's really, really bad with ball security. He does lead the team with a modest 17% assist rate though, so we're leaving him here. For all he lacks as a distributor, his mid-range game is on point; he makes almost 60% of his two-point jumpers.|
|Carlin Dupree||Shooting Guard||JP Macura|
|6'3", 190||Measurements||6'5", 203|
|Dupree's 3P% comes on 4-8, so don't look for him to be the leading threat here. He's a top-level defensive player who has had some trouble accepting his offensive role, most recently in January of last season when he left the team over a dispute about how many touches he was getting. He'll be asked to guard someone and not screw things up on offense.|
|Paul Miller||Small Forward||Malcom Bernard|
|6'6", 200||Measurements||6'6", 202|
|Miller came into this year a career 40% shooter from deep, so do let his early cold snap fool you into thinking he can't shoot. He's also an adept scorer off of the bounce, preferring a pull-up game to catching and shooting, and he finishes really well at the rim. He's not a dynamic defender or rebounder; he's on the floor to get buckets.|
|AJ Jacobson||Power Forward||Trevon Bluiett|
|6'6", 210||Measurements||6'6", 215|
|That 3P% is not a misprint; he's 14-18 from deep on the year. It's also not a huge fluke; he shot just shy of 40% from beyond the arc in his first two seasons. He's mostly just a low usage rate shooter on offense, but he's a solid defender who is active in the passing lanes and contesting shots. He can be prone to foul trouble though, and he's not much of a rebounder.|
|Dexter Werner||Center||Sean O'Mara|
|6'6", 240||Measurements||6'10", 245|
|One of the great things about having very young kids is that you get to watch a lot of obscure late-night basketball. Dexter Werner became one of my favorite players last year through that process. He's built like the all-state tight end and shot putter that he was in high school, and he's got weirdly effective game in and around the paint. Also, he somehow blocks a lot of shots and is fourth in the nation in steal percentage. I <3 me some Dexter Werner.|
The bench isn't deep: NDSU ranks 333rd in the nation in bench minutes. Kind of leading the line is Deng Geu, a 6'8", 210-pound freshman forward. He has a 25.2% usage rate, but a lot of that is accounted for by his catastrophic 31.8% TO rate. He defends the rim well and is very active on the glass at both ends. He puts up a very respectable 5.9/3.6/0.4 on .455/.286/.692 shooting in just 13.6 minutes per game. Freshman Tyson Ward is a 6'6" wing who gets decent minutes, posting 3.4/3.6/1.3 per game. I would be willing to wager he'd get more burn if not for his unconscionable .235/.200/.833 shooting line.
Dylan Miller is a 6'8", 240-pound sophomore big man who gets 4.5/2.3/0.2 per game on .571/.000/.750 shooting. He's a good rebounder and decent shot blocker who rarely roams from the lane on offense. You'll notice a lack of reserve guards here. Kabellis and Dupree are going to be the guys playing guard for almost the whole game, with Ward occasionally sliding up to the two if one of the starters needs a breather. Perimeter depth is almost entirely absent for the Bison.
- Can Xavier force the pace? NDSU wants to go very slowly to allow their defense to prop up their struggling offense. Xavier wants to go fast(er) because they are loaded with the kind of athletes that mid-majors can’t hang with in the open floor. The Musketeers are going to want at least 70 possessions out of this game, the Bison only 65.
- Will the Musketeers make some threes? One of the only weaknesses of the NDSU defense is behind the arc. They aren’t dreadful, but they aren’t as excellent as they are against shooters inside the arc. Xavier has been bad all season from deep, but managed a mediocre 8-22 in the second game against UNI. That many shots or a couple more makes would go a long way to stretching out the Bison.
- Can someone help take the load from the Big Three? Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett, and JP Macura are all playing at least 35 minutes per game. Malcolm Bernard is playing 30. After that, no one is getting more than 17. The Musketeers have gone deep in tournaments before with top loaded teams, but the strain shows as the season goes on. Kaiser Gates return may help, but surely having a big be able to play more than a minute without committing a foul would go a long way.
- Avoid foul trouble: Tyrique Jones is now averaging an astonishing 10.7 fouls per 40 minutes. If you’re math challenged, that means it would take him slightly less than 20 minutes to foul out. Sean O’Mara and Rashid Gaston lag somewhat behind Jones, but both are over six fouls per 40. Until the guards can start consistently making shots, the bigs can’t keep putting themselves behind the eight ball with fouls. NDSU chokes out the interior well, X needs their talented bigs to stay on the floor.
- Force turnovers: The Bison don’t take care of the ball, Xavier takes the ball away at the 40th best rate in the nation. If the game is be played at a slower pace, and yesterday Paul argued that would be good for Xavier, the Musketeers can keep NDSU from ever getting a foothold by turning them over. Xavier is going to be able to score on this defense, which means every possession for NDSU is going to be precious.
- Close off the glass: The Bison aren’t bullish (bovine joke!) on getting to the glass on either end. Offensively, they’re 229th in the nation against Xavier’s 17th best defensive rebounders. On the other end, they allow teams lesser than Xavier to grab 32% of their misses. The Musketeers should absolutely dominate this game on the glass. Actually doing that would go a long way toward getting us all some Tim Stainbrook time.