You would think that a team's fans would be happy to not just grab a bye in the first round of the conference tournament but to also pull a team they had swept on the season. Both of those things are true of Xavier, as they are facing a Marquette team they knocked off twice on the year, but there's a certain amount of trepidation among Xavier fans heading into the Marquette game.
Maybe it's because they remember needing a Kaiser Gates-fueled run to beat Marquette in the last ten minutes at Cintas. Maybe it's because Marquette has consensus lottery pick Henry Ellenson. Or maybe it's just because a lifetime of waiting for the other shoe to drop has left X fans unwilling to accept unqualified confidence.
One would assume that Marquette might be coming in with heavy legs after its frenetic, defense-optional 101-93 win over St. John's last night. The Golden Eagles were up by as many as 17 in the second half before St. John's stormed all the way back to take an 89-88 lead.
That lead lasted all of one possession, as Henry Ellenson answered with a three and he and his teammates got just enough stops down the stretch to salt the game away from the line. Marquette only played seven players during the game as Steve Woojahooski tightened up a rotation that was already fairly tight during the season.
We've all seen Marquette at least twice already this year, so I'm not going to belabor the same points over again. We'll take a look at how the top performers for the Golden Eagles have played against Xavier, hit you with the keys to victory, then get ready for game time.
You have to start with 6'11" freshman forward Henry Ellenson, who has average a cool 21/7/2 against Xavier on .560/.400/.706 shooting. The book on Ellenson is to face him up and try to get him to settle for jumpers, but he knocked those down against Xavier and is certainly at least a viable shooter from all three levels. He's also done work inside, getting to the line 17 times in the teams' two previous meetings.
Keep an eye on Ellenson's fellow big man Luke Fischer. He has averaged 11/6.5/2 against Xavier this year, but it has come on .667/.000/.833 shooting. He has devoured the Muskies inside, but foul trouble in both games has limited his effectiveness down the stretch. Getting a couple of quick ones on him would go a long way to helping Xavier out, and with the officiating we've seen at MSG so far this week, there's a chance someone is itching to make those calls.
Haanif Cheatham, Duane Wilson, and JuJuan Johnson have each averaged just about 11 points per game against the Muskies this year, but they've gotten there in different ways. Cheatham has shot judiciously but well, sporting a .538/.400/1.000 line and a perfect 7-7 from the stripe.
Johnson has gone slightly higher volume from the field and only gotten to the line twice, but his results look a lot like Cheatham's. Wilson has been a nightmare. He has led the team in usage despite posting ORtgs of 72 and 36. His shooting line of .286/.313/.000 is bad, but his 5 turnovers per game have been even worse. Wilson has been about average for Marquette this year, but he has hamstrung them against X.
Keys to the game
-Make Ellenson work. It's basically a foregone conclusion at this point that Ellenson is going to get his, especially after his 27 and 14 demolition of St. John's. What Xavier can't do is let him get into a rhythm with easy buckets. Change between the zone and man, run Tre, Jalen, and Kaiser at him, double him and play straight up. The more Ellenson has to think and adjust each time down, the better chance Xavier has of turning Marquette's offense into something less efficient than it was last night.
-Start with stops. There are lots of things worse than starting the game by hemorrhaging points, but you understand what I mean when I say there's nothing worse than starting a game by hemorrhaging points. Marquette - as we've seen - is a team capable of scoring in bunches. Xavier is not a team that tends to play its best ball when trying to eat into a lead, as demonstrated by the fact that Xavier has been behind in each of its four losses. The margin for error is slight in single-elimination play, and you don't want to start a game by making your opponent feel like they might do something special tonight.
-Don't play hero ball. Everyone who grew up playing basketball grew up wanting to have a big game at Madison Square Garden, and the tournament there is one of the things that attracts people to the Big East. Xavier isn't a team built to have someone try to take on the load all by himself from the word go, but that hasn't stopped them from trying at times this year. The Muskies need to stay calm, move the ball, and let the game come to them in the individual level. If they play together how they're capable of, the results will take care of themselves.