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

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Auburn Julie Bennett-USA TODAY Sports

“Hello from beautiful Maui!” is the exact way I would open this article if I had traveled to Maui with the team. My salary as a humble public servant doesn’t allow for that, though, so I’ll be covering this week from equally scenic but almost infinitely more affordable Ohio.

Xavier’s first hurdle on their conquest of the big island (not to be confused with the Big Island, which is bigger and thus takes proper noun status) is Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s redemption project easily handled South Alabama and then ran a decent Washington team out of the gym in their season’s warmup games. A tune-up against non-league Mississippi College on Wednesday has the War Eagle crowd rolling into what they assume is a preamble to their showdown with Duke in the second round.

Team fingerprint

Here is my hot take on Auburn’s offense, ranked 10th in the KenPom in adjusted efficiency: it’s not actually that good. Obviously that’s hyperbole, but hear me out. Auburn posts an EFG% of 62.1% in transition, which covers roughly a third of their possessions. In the half court, their EFG% is just over 50%. Another 10% of their shots are stick backs, upon which they’re shooting above 80%. Keep them out of transition - which isn’t easy - and off the glass - where they’re second in the nation, grabbing almost half of their own misses - and they’ll struggle to score.

Also, they take 48% of their shots from three and make 43.5% of them, so the arc is obviously a concern. Again, though, they feast on clean looks in transition, so keeping the ball from running will make it more difficult for them to connect at the rate they have so far.

Defense is the key to Auburn’s offense in a lot of ways. They force a ton of turnovers in full court and half court situations, leading to runouts and easy buckets. They also clean the glass at an absurd rate and block a ton of two-point shots. If you can get a shot off, they’re actually fairly porous, ranking 239th in EFG% defense. They also send opponents to the line a ton, which would be a mixed blessing for Xavier.

Starters

Jared Harper Point Guard Quentin Goodin
Junior Class Junior
5'11", 175 Measurements 6'4", 194
15/4/7.3 Game line 13.5/1.5/4
0.455/0.524/1 Shooting line 0.37/0.308/0.5
Standing under 6' tall, Harper obviously is more of a Dee Davis type than an Ed Sumner. He distributes the ball extremely well, has a solid 3 point shot which has been deadly this season, and historically has found ways to get himself to the line. He is likely to log at least 30 minutes at the point and rarely gets himself in foul trouble despite giving up a ton of size to most opponents.
Bryce Brown Shooting Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Sophomore
6'3", 198 Measurements 6'3", 200
13.7/2.7/1 Game line 11.7/4/3.7
0.371/0.37/0.556 Shooting line 0.565/0.455/0.5
Brown is on the floor to score the basketball, which he does mostly by bombing away from three point range. So far this season, he has taken just 8 of his 35 shots from inside the arc, so clearly getting close to the target is not a big deal for him. His shooting numbers have dipped a bit from last season and he has been much more skewed toward taking threes, but he has a track record of finding his feet in conference play, so there is probably not too much reason for concern on Auburn's part.
Samir Doughty Small Forward Naji Marshall
Junior Class Sophomore
6'4", 195 Measurements 6'7", 222
15/3.3/2.3 Game line 14.3/8.3/4
0.593/0.417/1 Shooting line 0.471/0.231/0.615
This guy transferred in from VCU after one season there and has been lighting it up so far as a Tiger. He did a little bit of everything against Washington, going for 18/4/4 with 4 steals on 4-5/2-4/4-4 shooting line. He likes to drive the ball all the way to the hoop or catch and shoot, but pulling up in the midrange doesn't seem to be his thing. His achilles heel this year has been turnovers, as he has coughed the ball up 8 times in 3 games so far, which is not what you like to see from a non-primary ballhandler.
Anfernee McLemore Power Forward Ryan Welage
Junior Class Senior
6'7", 220 Measurements 6'10", 205
8/6.3/0.7 Game line 12/3.7/1.3
0.421/0.143/0.583 Shooting line 0.414/0.333/1
McLemore is not necissarily on the floor because of his scoring capabilites, although he has carried that load at times in his career as well. His main function on a team that is 229th in the nation in average height is to grab rebounds and protect the rim. He does those things extemely well with his rebounding rate in the top 250 at both ends of the floor and his block rate at 25th. He is more of a glue guy than someone who is going to demand a lot of touches, but he is very important to this Auburn team on the defensive end.
Chuma Okeke Center Tyrique Jones
Sophomore Class Junior
6'8", 230 Measurements 6'9", 235
14/8.7/3 Game line 13.3/9/1
0.6/0.636/1 Shooting line 0.692/0/0.571
If you had to point at someone on Auburn and identify him as their star player, Okeke would be the best choice. He is an animal on the offensive glass, owns a 74 eFG%, can step out and shoot the three, and averages 3 assists per game. He is a swiss army knife of sorts on offense and has very active hands both blocking shots and creating steals on defense. He went for a double double with 19 and 10 against Washington and is probably a player to watch for on postseason All-SEC lists if he keeps this up.

Reserves

A major piece off the bench for Bruce Pearl is 6’11” Austin Wiley, who is still shaking off the rust after a preseason foot injury. He mostly concerns himself with rebounding the ball, but chipped in with several double digit scoring performances last year. Senior guard Malik Dunbar logs the most minutes off the bench and has take the third most shots on the team. He splits his shots fairly evenly between attacking the rim and three pointers and has yet to log an assist against a D1 opponent this season. 6’8” Horace Spencer is the only other size that figures to feature prominently, and he is a more typical big that Okeke, preferring to do his work almost entirely at the rim and in the midrange. The backup for Harper at the point is JUCO transfer J’Von McCormick. McCormick has not shot well anywhere on the floor except at the rim, and is a bit more turnover prone than Harper, but is still a solid ball handler.

Three questions

-How about that tip time? The ball goes up at 9:30 in the dang morning local time. That is obviously not a time at which a lot of D1 guys have grown accustomed to playing. Most of us have watched enough basketball to know that weird things can happen in these holiday tournaments with weird setups like this. Auburn is a team that lives on energy; having to set an alarm to hoop might throw a wrinkle into that.

-Can Xavier’s defense adjust? It is absolutely paramount that the Musketeers run Auburn off the arc. If they can’t, pretty much everything else you read here is fairly moot. Auburn will jar clean looks if they get them in the half court or transition. They have struggled to get those looks without running, shooting 31% from deep on shots taken more than 10 seconds into a possession. Xavier needs to continue that trend.

-Will Xavier turn its shot selection around? The Muskies are a good two-point jump shooting team and a borderline elite two-point team in general, but they have been shooting threes like they try get the additional point whether or not they go in. When the ball handles started attacking downhill against Wisconsin, things really took off. A lot more of that and a lot less shooting jumpers off the bounce would stand X in good stead here.

Three keys

-Clean the glass. Auburn will get boards and shoot layups off of them; it’s basically their game plan in half court offense. Xavier has done well on the glass for the most part this year, but they were a bit permeable at times against Wisconsin. Ty Jones and Zach Hankins cannot afford to lose focus at all, and the whole team needs to maintain focus and keep bodies off the glass.

-Protect the ball. If you can keep Auburn from turning you over, you’ve actually got a pretty good chance of getting a good look. Unfortunately, Auburn is really good at forcing turnovers. The Muskies need Q to be the exact opposite of the guy who bops the ball off of an opponent’s head for no reason while continuing to be the guy who has a 0.0% TO rate on the year. A string of turnovers could end this game almost as fast as eschewing defense for seven consecutive possessions ended the last one.

-Control the pace. Auburn is basically the Showtime Lakers within the first 10 seconds of a possession. After that, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. If this thing turns into a track meet, the Muskies are going to need something really improbable to come out the other side with a decent result.