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Xavier v. EWU: Preview and keys to the game

Make no mistake, the Eagles are here to get beat. Xavier just needs to focus and get the job done.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Texas
Bogdan Bliznyuk with the ball in his hands.
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

What are you thinking about this week? Is it some last minute shopping? Travel plans? Maybe that Christmas buffet you love to make or just a huge plate of cinnamon rolls? Personally, I’m looking forward to Christmas Eve and a drive through the snow to look at lights and get the kids some peppermint mocha. You’ll note that none of those things are getting ready to play a college basketball game but, on a mostly deserted campus, Xavier is getting ready to do just that.

Well, sort of. Eastern Washington represents a departure from the teams that Xavier has played thus far. The Eagles are the weakest team on the schedule by some distance and they’ve played like it so far. EWU’s best win is Denver and their two victories over Seattle have taken them a total of four overtimes to complete. Upsets happen in college basketball, but this one would be on the historical level.

Team Fingerprint:

First, a positive note. The Eagles are third in the nation from the line, where they shoot 81.9%. They also only turn the ball over on 16.3% of their possessions. There’s something to be said for making the most of the talent you have by doing the small things very well. The Eagles are, sadly, not good at anything else offensively. Their effective field goal percentage of 49.8% is 189th in the nation and represents their highest ranking in anything other than the two already mentioned.

EWU doesn’t play defense.*


This is not the usual table of starters and reserves, but bear with me. Eastern Washington operates as three guys who dominate time and the ball, and then a subset of players who serve mostly in supporting positions. You may recall from the Know Your Non-Conference Opponent series that EWU was essentially two players deep last year. Apparently Coach Jim Hayford likes that method, because it’s essentially what he has set up again.

Bogdan Bliznyuk is the big gun. He averages 21.7/6.2/4.5 on a sterling .506/.375/.906 shooting line. Bliznyuk, a 6-6 Ukranian, runs the point forward spot and keeps the ball in his own hands as frequently as possible. He’s 15th in the nation in minutes and 37th in usage rate and basically runs the team at all times. If it isn’t Bliznyuk with the ball, it’s Jacob Wiley. Wiley is second on the Eagles in usage but still has the ball more than any player on Xavier. He turns all that possession into 13.7/7.7/1.9 on .583/.000/.886 shooting. Wiley is only 6-7, but he’s as close to a pure post as anyone that EWU has. Felix Von Hofe is not the bad guy in some cheesy movie set in Austria, but is instead the third of the main men for Hayford. His usage falls far lower than the others, but only because there’s only so much ball to go around. Von Hofe plays 34 minutes per game for 14.3/3.1/0.8 on .415/.414/.852 shooting. Felix has taken 68 threes this year and only 27 shots inside the arc. None of those three takes more than nine minutes a game off.

The drop to the next group is precipitous. Sir Washington of...Washington, I guess, plays 24 minutes and chips in 7.2 points. Washington is 6-3, the other starter, Cody Benzel is only 6-4. The Eagles are not at all a large lineup, and they don’t bring height off the bench either. Benzel gets 6.7 points per game and is a 42% three point shooter. Off the bench first is Luka Vulikic, another 6-5 G/F, but one who very rarely shoots. Indeed, only little used forward Jesse Hunt even cracks the 17% usage rate mark. Essentially the Eagles are set up as a group that uses the ball like Jordan Crawford followed by the rest of the team that uses the ball like Quentin Goodin. If you’re a bench player looking for minutes or shots, this may not be the school for you.

Three Questions:

- Can Xavier focus? The Musketeers had a relatively easy game slated over last Thanksgiving break, and they made a complete meal of staggering past NKU. In 2015 the game before Christmas was Auburn on the road. Recent pre-holiday cupcake games have not gone well, mostly because Xavier hasn’t looked terribly engaged.

- Is this the game threes start to drop? EWU (see above) is not good at either preventing teams from taking three pointers or keeping them from making them. Xavier very much needs to make some shots. A turn for the better against Utah was followed by a return to form against Wake. The Musketeers have to start making jumpers or they aren’t going far.

- Will X score 100? Xavier’s offense is excellent at creating second chances and EWU doesn’t stop that any better than they do anything else. Great Falls, from the Frontier Conference of the NAIA, dropped 76 on the Eagles. If that can happen and the Musketeers are in the mood, we could be watching Tim Stainbrook toss in point #100.

Three Keys:

- Stop Bliznyuk: Bogdan Bliznyuk uses 31% of the possessions when he is on the floor. He leads the Eagles in points and assists and is second in rebounding and field goal percentage. Heavy favorites lose games like these because someone on the other team just goes nuts. Bliznyuk would be the guy to do that for EWU.

- Make some shots: The reason Xavier is so high in most computer rankings is because they paper of the cracks with incredible team rebounding. It would be just delightful if they used this game to give themselves fewer rebounding on the offensive end. 32.3% from three, 51% inside the arc, and 69% from the line are not the shooting numbers of an elite team. The Musketeers should dominate on the glass all game, but making shots early would take a lot of the suspense out of this thing.

- Don’t get hurt: The season starts in earnest in eight days when Providence visits. At that point, Xavier will shine up their tournament credentials during a successful Big East season, or they’ll plunge onto the bubble with bad one. Watching Edmond Sumner wrench a knee tonight would be awful. Be careful with all that running and jumping today, boys.

*They do block 14% of opponent’s shots, mostly thanks to Jacob Wiley, but adding that note in would have ruined the aesthetic I was creating.